Baxter: Year 2 Begins

This time last year, I began a brand new adventure, a leap of faith, as my principal said recently. I left Poland Regional High School to help start a brand new school in Portland, Maine. A Brand New School. Would it open? Would kids even come? Would we survive year one? Would there be a year two? There were certainly lots of questions, and not many answers. Except, we did open, kids did come (and keep coming), we survived, and there’s a year two. We’ve expanded our faculty to meet the needs of another 100 students. We’ve revamped our schedule and our curriculum. We’ve created a school-wide writing rubric, together, with input from the entire faculty (soon to be approved), that we agree to test out during the fall term. We are moving forward.

Last year, we weren’t sure if the school would open on time. There were issues with building and occupancy permits. We spent our first day team and community building at Fort Williams Park. And by Day Two, we were in the building, putting together our cursed Ikea furniture. But it was an adventure that drew us together as a team and a community. How could we possibly recapture that spirit this time around, when we have a year behind us? After all, we’re not “new” anymore.

Fort Williams worked so well last year, that we’re doing it again, but only with 9th and 10th graders. Two hundred thirty students are too many for Rippleffect to work with all at once, so we’re splitting up. They will have our 9th & 10th graders at Fort Williams Park this Wednesday. They will host the 11th graders on Thursday, using the facilities on Cow Island in Casco Bay. Meanwhile, the 9th & 10th graders will be back at school orienting each other about Baxter Academy, and the ways that our school is different from other public schools. On Friday, those juniors, and some sophomores, will work with the 9th graders as mentors. And there will be furniture building, of course.

I’m excited about how we’ve rearranged our curriculum. We are organizing by trimesters, and we are focusing on being really standards-based. So, we’ve created these 12 week courses, that focus in on specific standards. In math, that means focusing on Algebra or Functions or Statistics or Geometry. Those are the big, reporting standards. There are course standards that are a smaller grain size, like Building Functions or Reasoning with Equations. But this is the exciting part, for me, of continuing to build this school. Figuring out what standards-based, really standards-based, graduation looks like. Not some hybrid of standards, courses, and credits, but standards. It’s a work in progress, like everything, but I’m excited to be teaching courses like Functions for Modeling, Problem Solving with Algebra, Intro to Statistics, Designing Experiments & Studies, and Programming for Beginners. That last one came from our students.

The wrinkle to our beginning school this year is the fact that our basement renovation will not be complete in time for the week that we had planned for classes to begin. But when it’s done, it will give us some really awesome spaces: a fabrications lab, complete with drill presses and table saws and a CNC router and whatever else we can get our hands on, and real science lab with benches and space to conduct experiments, a CAD focused computer lab, and a couple more classrooms.

Rather than see this as a complete setback, it provides us with an opportunity. The opportunity to pull our students together, students who come from 35 different communities, and teach them a few skills. Skills that range from how to get around Portland (so you don’t get lost at lunchtime) to what to know about your laptop and how to organize your Google drive. We have workshops on how to conduct research (it’s more than just Google?) to understanding where food comes from (have you seen Jamie Oliver’s TED Talk?) to learning how to use science probes for collecting data to just a little bit about project management.

Sure, we didn’t plan on two weeks of Baxter Foundations, but we are Innovative and Ethical and see this delay as an opportunity rather than a setback. That’s part of the payoff of taking that leap of faith a year ago. I am constantly reminded that it was the right leap to take.

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