Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, Portland’s first charter school, may have had a rough start. But parents, school officials and students say they are pleased with how the academic year has gone, with no major problems and an outlook for next year that includes plans to grow.

The school wrapped up its first year with more than $250,000 in the bank, a waiting list of potential students hoping to attend next year, and plans to hire 11 more teachers and expand the current facility at 54 York St. to accommodate a fall freshman class of 85 students.

“It is the hardest and most delightful thing I have ever done,” said Head of School Michele LaForge, who started out the year teaching a math course in addition to launching the new school. “I kind of can’t believe we did it.”

Baxter Academy opened in fall 2013 with an initial student body of 130 ninth- and 10th-graders from more than 20 towns, and will add a new freshman class in each of the next two years to become a four-year high school in 2015-16. It is one of five charter schools operating in the state.

Maine charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. By law, the state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021.

The other charter schools in operation are the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, Cornville Regional Charter School, Fiddlehead School for Arts & Sciences in Gray, and Harpswell Coastal Academy. A sixth charter school, Maine Connections Academy, plans to open this fall and will be the state’s first virtual charter school, with students learning largely from home and getting lessons online.

Charter School Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint, who recently toured Baxter at the end of its first year with two other commission members, said that overall the school has had a “wonderful” first year.

INDEPENDENT PROJECTS ON FRIDAYS

On a recent Friday morning at Baxter, the halls were noisy and students were streaming in all directions after a morning assembly in the main hall.

Doors popped open and shut, kids sat in classrooms unfolding their laptops, while several others sat cross-legged in a stairwell, tapping away on their own computers. In another stairwell, three girls put the finishing touches on a mural they created, while in the engineering room, a group was fine-tuning a tabletop-sized, remotely operated submersible they built.

“We are all here because we’re tired of learning out of a book,” said Theo Matheson, a 14-year-old freshman who is working with three other students on their “Flex Friday” group project: a USB flash drive capped with a Bluetooth device so information on the drive can be transmitted to smartphones and other devices that don’t have USB ports.

Every Friday, Baxter students are free all day to pursue an independent project, after four days of a traditional class schedule. Other projects include designing and programming an online game, building a kayak, collecting Maine music and writing a business plan.

All of Maine’s charter schools have one thing in common: The students and the teachers chose to be there, and that alone makes it a distinct experience, Lapoint said. At Baxter, Lapoint said she was struck by the projects the students developed in their Flex Friday program, since the commissioners weren’t entirely sure that leaving students to their own devices for a full day every week would be successful.

After seeing the projects, she said she was convinced.

“I hate to use the word ‘awe-inspiring,’ but it was,” Lapoint said, adding that much of the math and engineering was over her head.

The commission works closely with all of the charter schools even after they open, including two on-site visits the first year. The visits are largely to gather impressions and feedback from students, teachers and parents. More precise measures – the school budget and student test scores – will be analyzed over the summer, Lapoint said, with final end-of-the-year reports on all three of the new charter schools being issued Sept. 1.

SERIES OF BUMPS ALONG THE WAY

A year ago, Baxter’s future wasn’t so clear.

The school was originally launched by John Jaques, but school leadership changed in early 2013 when the board removed him and subsequently hired retired Thornton Academy head Carl Stasio as executive director. The transition led to a major reorganization, with new donor financing and a legal dispute eventually settled out of court by Jaques and the board. Over the summer, the school faced some controversy after hosting a school choice lunch for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, and after failing two building inspections before getting a temporary occupancy permit just a week before opening

Today, LaForge is enthusiastic as she shows visitors around the building, pointing out student work on the walls, introducing teachers and stopping to talk to students. She’s working flat-out most of the time, she admits, but describes it as a labor of love.

“We’ve had a really good first year,” she said.

She acknowledges the school faced various challenges, from figuring out bus routes for students who lived far from the school, to completely changing the class schedules halfway through the school year.

Also halfway through the year, the school made another big change and started allowing students to go off campus for lunch and to do project work. Some parents say they had difficulty figuring out what their children’s grades were, and Infinite Campus, the computer system used to display grades to parents, was still glitchy in the last weeks of school, with some grades still being changed or left blank.

There were also more mundane issues, such as realizing when winter hit that the school needed coat racks. That turned into a hands-on student project, just as the students had used the first few days of class in the fall to build the Ikea furniture they would use throughout the building.

WAITING LIST KEEPS GROWING

LaForge said she talks a lot to prospective parents about what Baxter is, and isn’t. The student body is similar to surrounding school districts, with students ranging in ability, some students who are not native English speakers and about 15 percent with some sort of learning or physical disability that requires an individual education plan, or IEP.

The school is not a good fit for everyone, she says, and she tries to manage the expectations of prospective students and their families. Baxter has no Advanced Placement courses, for example, and no sports teams.

“We can’t do everything,” LaForge said. “Not yet. It takes time.”

But she said the demand is high and students are still adding their names to a waiting list even though the school already held a lottery in March to fill all the available slots for fall 2014. Only four students out of the original 130 have left Baxter and will not attend next year, two of them because they moved out of state, she said.

“Baxter is probably the best school around,” said sophomore Alec DuPuis of Greene, one of the students working on the Bluetooth USB project.

He said he particularly likes having four days in the classroom and having Friday free for individual projects: “There’s a freedom to the school,” he said.

Again and again, students mention how they “fit in” at Baxter, saying they didn’t feel that way at their old schools.

“There, we were the nerds. Here, we’re the think tank,” said Nick Landry, 14, of Gray, as his friends nodded in agreement and laughed. “It’s a much more accepting community.”

Lizzie Klatt, 15, said she was surprised at how well the students at Baxter get along with one another, even when they are interested in very different things.

“That has been a really nice experience,” said Klatt, of Gorham.

LaForge said students are told they are expected to be active participants in all aspects of school life.

“It’s a priority to speak out and find your voice,” she said. “It has been a year of these kids finding their voice.”

Bill Schmidt said his twin 16-year-old sons lobbied him to attend Baxter. “A year later, we have no regrets,” Schmidt said.

“A highlight of the school is high teacher morale,” he said in an email. “Teachers have a lot of say in how courses are taught, but at the same time, the teachers can be held accountable if results are not at a high standard. Standards must not only be maintained, but also be exceeded, or we would not hesitate to return to Freeport High School, which is an equally excellent high school.”

Schmidt said his sons particularly like the hands-on, team-based work, and found the work challenging, if a little unstructured in some of the classes.

“As the school matures, I fully expect that any issues will be worked out,” said Schmidt, who is an engineer.

ASSESSING THE FUTURE

Lapoint said the commission’s report in September will include detailed information about the school’s budget, facility work, test scores and other benchmarks needed to assess its growth and progress.

Baxter had a budget of about $2 million its first year, with about $1.4 million from the state in per-pupil funding and almost $600,000 from private donations. Next year, the projected budget is $2.5 million, with a goal to raise another $600,000 to bridge the gap between the state funding and the school’s expenses, according to school board treasurer Peter Montano.

Most of the school’s startup funding came from large, individual donations – usually described as “angel” investors. Another key source of revenue this year was the sale of an out-of-state property that had been donated to the school during its earliest days under Jaques.

“There’s no questions they’re fine financially,” Lapoint said of Baxter. “But the angels can disappear.” She noted that Cornville was saved financially by a $700,000 federal grant, and that many of the other Maine charter schools are also operating on lean budgets.

Because of ongoing construction costs, Baxter officials are still finalizing next year’s budget. This year, renovations were done on the second floor to add several classrooms and office space. This summer, the school will gut and renovate the basement to add more classrooms and lab space.

With an anticipated enrollment of about 300 students by fall 2016, LaForge said she thinks the school will still fit in the building, but officials are already looking to use some off-site space by then to ease the space crunch.

Another key measure for all of the charter schools is students’ academic progress.

“The next step is really to bear down on the academics and make sure that they are performing at proficiency levels, and if not, why not,” Lapoint said.

Baxter’s first-year test results for the PSAT will be included in the end-of-year report released in September, Lapoint said. For first-year charter schools, the results are used as a baseline to compare with future results and measure student progress. Other charters have used their first-year results to flag weaknesses in some subjects, and to determine whether to adopt new curriculum or teaching methods.

Baxter uses a grading system that requires students to get at least a “3” on a 1-to-4 scale before they can pass a class. Under Maine law, all Maine schools must adopt a standards-based system this fall, and award diplomas only to students who meet that standard, beginning in 2018.

Although the standardized testing data aren’t available yet, LaForge and others say they think the students are doing well academically.

One group of students took first place at a statewide Wind Blade Challenge organized by the Maine Composites Alliance and the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative.

Another group took second place at a poetry slam contest at Falmouth High School. In art and design classes, students are making kayaks and furniture and studying photography. More than half the students take Mandarin and study Chinese culture.

Several of the Friday projects also show a deep understanding of math, engineering and computer science, instructors say.

Engineering teacher Jonathan Amory, who oversaw the Wind Blade Challenge team, said he’s been amazed at how much some students have learned, particularly since many of them began the year without any previous design and engineering experience.

“These aren’t the best and the brightest. These are average students,” Amory said.

At a traditional school they may not get the opportunity to take engineering electives until their junior or senior year, Amory said. “Here, we have a chance to take and pursue these interests right away and see where they go. I see the power in that,” he said.

Erin Whitney, 16, said she was involved in robotics at her middle school, but it wasn’t offered at her high school.

“I considered Maine School of Science and Mathematics but I didn’t want to live away from home,” said Whitney, who was fiddling with a brush motor for a remotely operated submersible as she spoke.

“I made the change to (Baxter) and it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done.”