Inquiry leads learning at Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a public charter high school free to Maine students. Our project-based STEM curriculum emphasizes real-world problem solving and is paired with a humanities program that connects ideas across disciplines and cultivates strong communication skills. Students design innovative projects through Flex Friday, a unique program requiring initiative, perseverance, and collaboration, as well as reflection on the work and its impact in the community.
Our students choose work that inspires their imaginations. They persevere through setbacks and innovate with curiosity, conscience, and creativity. They solve real-world problems. Our students matter not only to their school but also to a strong future for Maine.
Baxter Academy was founded in response to a growing urgency among students and parents for greater access to high-quality STEM education. In the summer of 2012, a group of students, parents, educators, and community leaders united around the idea of a STEM-focused charter high school in Portland that would be open by lottery to any high school student in the state of Maine and would feature an innovative, project-based curriculum. A key feature of the school would be Flex Friday, a unique program designed to invest 20 percent of the week in yearlong student-driven projects solving real-world problems. Baxter students would commute daily from a 25-mile catchment area to go to school in downtown Portland where they would be prepared for the best colleges and be plugged directly into the economic engine of the state through internships, mentorships, and industry partnerships.
During the rigorous approval process, the community worked together to meet the requirements of Maine’s new charter law and the Maine Charter School Commission. Students raised $8,000 in a 1,000 Pledges in 10 Days campaign. Parents organized information sessions at local libraries. Baxter’s Board of Directors hired Head of School Michele LaForge and Executive Director Carl Stasio and then signed the charter contract with the Charter Commission in May 2013. Mere months later, in September, the school opened its doors at 54 York Street to 125 freshmen and sophomore students from 28 towns. Working alongside the students was a diverse, talented, and highly experienced faculty of teachers committed to student-centered learning and innovation. At its first monitoring review, the Charter Commission stated that education at Baxter Academy was “as good as it gets.” Now in its third year, Baxter educates 320 freshmen through seniors from 66 towns and has added a digital-media-based satellite space on Congress Street. Its first graduation will be held in June 2016.
Students are fulfilling the promise of the idea that inspired a community to create Baxter Academy. This past year, 100% of Baxter students completed Flex Friday projects and presented at final exhibitions. On the Smarter Balanced statewide assessment, 86% of Baxter juniors scored at or above standard in Problem-solving and Modeling & Data Analysis, compared with 65% at or above in the state as a whole. Baxter students are also succeeding with large-scale projects: The school’s community-based rookie FIRST robotics team went to World competition and came home the top-ranked team in Maine (working with a tiny build budget of only $5,000) and the second highest ranked rookie team in the world. A group of freshmen and sophomores took first place in a statewide wind power competition against experienced upperclassmen. Writing in the Portland Press Herald, (April 5, 2015) economist Charles Lawton, said, “If, as Gallup research contends, entrepreneurship is basically about optimism, and if, as I believe, [Baxter Academy's] Flex Friday is basically about entrepreneurship, then expanding this form of education will go a long way toward addressing Maine’s economic woes."
Recently Maine’s Commissioner of Education lauded what he saw on a Flex Friday visit to Baxter, saying: “At other schools we may see students working with 3-D printers. At Baxter, students are building a 3-D printer.” The Commissioner, as well as members of the state legislature and city council, the state and regional Chambers of Commerce and state workforce-development leaders who have also visited, have talked about their concerns about identifying ways to educate students for the unpredictable world in five, ten, or fifteen years. For them, Baxter represents a promising model. At Baxter, students regularly approach open-ended problems on Flex Friday—and independently persevere through failure until they find creative solutions. This kind of problem solving prepares students to confront and to solve the emerging problems of the future.
Baxter Academy has proven already to be a necessary option not only for its students, but for Maine as well. The school continues to seek STEM-industry partnerships and support that will extend its reach and its ability to prepare the next generation of highly skilled innovators who will help Maine meet the challenges of the 21st century.