PORTLAND — Ryan Courbron came to Baxter Academy with a career path in mind.

“I came in here thinking that I’m going to be an architect,” the 15-year-old student from Lewiston said. 

Baxter is one of five public charter schools in Maine. It opened last fall to 126 freshmen and sophomores. The school offers upward of 20 elective courses, a plus for Courbron.

“One of the first electives I signed up for was architectural design,” he said. “Now I know I do not want to be an architect at all. I have no idea what I want to be.”

Courbron is one of 19 students from Lewiston and Auburn who chose to attend Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, rather than stay with their friends at their traditional high school back home.

Having the option to take elective courses as a freshman helped make the decision to attend Baxter that much easier for Courbron.

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“Figuring out what I wanted to do by taking electives helped me out so much,” said Courbron, who will enter his sophomore year this fall. 

“At a lot of high schools, it is your senior year before you can take an elective,” Baxter Principal Michele LaForge said. At Baxter, optional courses for freshmen and sophomores include astronomy, theater improv, furniture-making and computer-aided design.

“Research shows that if you can figure out earlier what you like and what you don’t like, then you will be more productive during your junior and senior years as you get deeper into what you know you will like,” LaForge said. 

Abram Collette and his twin sister, Abbie, of Lewiston, chose to attend Baxter as well.

“There is lots of flexibility at Baxter,” Abram Collette said. “You have your core classes, but then you also have a lot of options to do stuff that you are interested in and passionate about,” the former Saint Dominic Academy student said. 

“I wanted to come here because of the electives,” Abbie Collette said.

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Baxter is not your typical high school. Classroom walls are bright pink, students sit on yoga balls rather than chairs, students call their teachers by their first names, Van Halen T-shirts are worn by the social studies teacher on Flex Friday and the principal wears sneakers.

“She’s not a sit-down kind of principal,” Abram Collette said. Her laptop serves as her desk, he said.

“It was a last-minute decision to come to Baxter,” 14-year-old Nick Folster of Lewiston said. “My mom mentioned coming here during a camping trip.” 

Folster struggled with math in middle school. “Math has never been my strong suit,” he said.

He has found Baxter’s method of project-based learning a better fit. 

“Doing something physical makes math a more memorable experience,” Folster said. “It’s more flexible than memorizing facts.”

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Applying those facts to something is much easier than memorizing facts for a test and then forgetting about it the next day, Collette said.

Day one at Baxter was spent team building at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth to get to know each other. Students come from over 20 Maine towns and most had never met.

“The second day of school, we showed up to this building, which was empty except for 3,000 pounds of IKEA furniture,” LaForge said. The school’s furniture had not been assembled and was still in boxes. “We spent the day building furniture.”

Putting desks together is one example of student involvement at the school. Collette helped interview two potential teachers and the Student Senate assembles when rules are broken. 

The students created a student code of conduct and called it The Baxtitution.

When a student was caught plagiarizing, the Student Senate crafted the punishment: Write the definition of plagiarism, which included examples of plagiarism and tips on how to avoid copying the words of others.

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“He created something that will help other students avoid his particular pitfall,” LaForge said. “The punishment fits the crime. It’s not about punishment. It’s about learning.”

Baxter’s curriculum is focused on the study of science, technology, engineering and math. Mandarin Chinese is the foreign language that’s taught.

“That is a language that is growing in the world in terms of a country that is innovating around technology and science,” LaForge said.

Baxter is adding a junior class for the 2015-16 school year and six of the 97 incoming freshmen are from Lewiston and Auburn.

“Besides the bus ride, there are really no drawbacks,” said Courbron, who has an hour-and-45-minute bus ride each way. “You get to connect and make a lot of friends on the bus,” he said.

Ezra Thomas of Auburn said the bus ride is worth it. He is aiming for a career in the technology field and found that his high school in Auburn was lacking in tech classes. Thomas took the only two computer programming classes that Edward Little High School offered his freshman year.

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“EL is not very techie,” he said.

“For this particular situation, we needed something else,” said his mother, Carol. “Not to take anything away from EL,” she said. “My other son (Emile) graduated from Edward Little and did very well there.”

Collette said being among the first to attend Baxter gives him a sense of pride. “We are part of the school. We are making it what we want it to be.”

“It’s more than I wanted it to be,” Folster said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Baxter’s first year ended June 18.

“I look forward to coming back,” Thomas said.

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