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January 10, 2003

Baxter School for the Deaf taps Portland High School

From: Central Maine Daily Sentinel, ME - 10 Jan 2003

By TESS NACELEWICZ, Blethen Maine Newspapers

PORTLAND — High school students from Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf are expected to attend Portland High School this fall because the state says the current high school program that tiny Baxter offers does not meet state standards.

However, Maine's state school for the deaf has won full approval from the state for its elementary and middle school programs, which state education officials have described as "very strong." Baxter — located on Falmouth's Mackworth Island —will continue to provide a solid education for about 30 students from kindergarten through eighth grade and also for about 35 students in its preschool program, Superintendent Larry Taub said.

In addition, the 10-12 Baxter students slated to attend Portland High School will retain close ties with Baxter, considered the hub of Maine's deaf community. The students will continue to live in Baxter's dorm, participate in school sports and other activities, and get their diplomas from Baxter, not Portland.

"This by no means is indicative of a phasing out" of the school, Taub said.

He said the primary reason the high school program didn't pass muster with the state is that the school has too few high school students to be able to offer the kind of education demanded by Maine's new learning standards, called Learning Results. Taub said he hopes to increase enrollment over the next few years so Baxter once again can have a high school program.

Still, the discontinuation of the secondary school program on the island is a setback to the school, whose long tradition dates back to its founding in Portland in 1876. It's not clear how long Baxter — which moved to Mackworth in 1957 — has had a high school program, but newspaper clippings of high school graduations from the school date back to the 1920s.

Baxter is fiercely loved by many deaf Mainers, who see it as the answer to the isolation that many deaf children experience when they are "mainstreamed" into regular schools with hearing students. At Baxter, students communicate with their peers and teachers in American Sign Language, which many deaf people consider their native language. They also learn to read and write in English.

A.J. Less, 17, of Farmingdale, a Baxter sophomore, said that before he started attending Baxter at age 8, he felt "all alone" in his public school. "I was the only deaf person and everybody else was hearing," he said Wednesday, speaking through an interpreter.

Taub said Baxter students attending Portland High will attend classes in groups of three or four, so they won't be so isolated. In addition, Baxter also plans to provide Portland with a teacher to teach ASL to hearing students, providing them not only with an opportunity to learn a foreign language but also to communicate with their deaf classmates.

Less said he's "a little bit scared" about attending Portland High, which has more than 1,000 students, but is also excited because he thinks the educational opportunities will be more challenging.

Baxter has been struggling in recent years to rebuild its educational programs and reputation after being plagued by a variety of problems, including frequent turnover in leadership, declining enrollment and extensive negative publicity concerning the physical and sexual abuse of students at the school in the 1960s and 1970s.

Baxter also had to work to gain full state approval after the state found in 1998 that it did not meet minimum standards for Maine schools. Among deficiencies the state cited was a lack of a consistent curriculum.

Last year, the state determined Baxter had turned around its kindergarten- through fifth-grade program to provide a quality education, but said its middle school and high school programs were not on par with other state schools.

Among problems, Taub said, was that with only 10 to 12 high school students, Baxter could not afford to hire enough teachers who were certified as teachers of the deaf and also had endorsements in each subject area they taught, such as math or science — which the state requires.

Baxter has now blended its middle schoolers into its elementary school and has won full state approval for what is now its kindergarten through eighth-grade program. But the state said Baxter has to find an alternate program for its high school students by June 30.

As a result, Baxter is in the process of developing a partnership with Portland High School to send its students there.

Baxter will cover the cost of sending the students to Portland and provide teachers, interpreters and other support staff, Taub said. Currently, he said, none of Baxter's high school students are Portland residents, but come from communities ranging from Eliot to Machias.

The agreement is still being worked out and must be endorsed by the Portland School Committee. But both Baxter and Portland school officials said they are looking forward to the arrangement.

"We're delighted to have these students," said Portland School Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor.

Portland High Principal Michael Johnson said he expects the Baxter students to fit right in for several reasons.

One is that the school has had deaf and hard-of-hearing students before, Johnson said. "The faculty is well aware of how they enrich our community," he said.

Only about 70 students, a small fraction of Maine's deaf and hard-of-hearing youngsters, actually attend Baxter School. The remainder, about 500 students, attend schools in their hometowns and receive outreach services from Baxter.

Portland High School also is extremely diverse, with many students from immigrant and refugee families attending the school. Nearly 30 languages are spoken in the hallways and O'Connor said that ASL will simply be another addition.

Taub said most of the Baxter students will be in classes designed for students with limited English proficiency, at least at first.

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.