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May 30, 2005

Portland High celebrates its new diversity

From:, ME - May 30, 2005

By BETH QUIMBY, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

At first, Jonathan Baldwin said, he wondered if he would fit in.

Baldwin, 19, of Auburn, and his two friends Anthony "A.J." Less, 19, of Gardiner and Kevin Lavallee, 19, of Lisbon had long attended the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf and were about to join the hearing world at Portland High School.

He said they worried about making friends and keeping up in a mainstream classroom.

Two years later, Baldwin said that what he experienced was mostly positive. When the three students receive their diplomas on June 9, they said they will leave behind new friends and good memories.

The three are the first students to graduate from a program at Portland High and the Baxter school on Mackworth Island in Falmouth.

After years of dwindling enrollment, Baxter officials decided to close their tiny high school because it could no longer afford varied course offerings. Enrollment at the school is declining as more students attend school in their districts - especially since the University of Southern Maine began offering a program to train American Sign Language interpreters, making them much more available, said Jane Hecker-Cain, Baxter's spokeswoman.

Baxter officials approached Portland High with a deal. If the high school would allow Baxter students to attend, Baxter would pay for three new high school teachers, including one who would teach American Sign Language to hearing students, and a staff of ASL interpreters.

Just who has benefited more is a subject for debate. Baxter students and officials said it allowed the deaf students, who would have found themselves isolated in their home school districts, to straddle the deaf and hearing communities and held them to the learning standards of public high school.

Portland school officials said the presence of a deaf community at Portland High enriched both teachers and students, and allowed 200 students to study American Sign Language.

"They have enriched what is already considered a strength here, tolerance and respect for all students and their differences," said Principal Michael Johnson.

The three seniors said they appreciated the diverse cultures and ethnic groups at Portland High, something they would have missed at Baxter or in their home districts.

Baldwin noted that 32 languages are spoken by students at the high school. When they arrived, they added one more. All three said the diversity helped them fit in.

"I met a lot of new people. I made a lot of new friends," Lavallee said.

Baldwin and Less will attend the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., next year. Lavallee said he wants to live at home for a while and find a job in plumbing, which he studied at Portland High.

All three said that being in a mainstream classroom was sometimes difficult, especially in math class. Baldwin said that simultaneously watching what the teacher was writing on the blackboard, watching his interpreter and working out math problems was a challenge.

Nevertheless, he said, math was his favorite subject.

Less said the homework load could be intense.

"We had so much homework in the fall," said Less, who wants to continue to study video technology. He spent the past two years working on a video documentary about the Baxter school.

More Baxter students are making their way through the hallways of Portland High every year. Four sophomores are due to become juniors next year and seven students have signed up to enter the freshman class.

Johnson said Baxter students will continue to be welcomed at Portland High because they bring so much to the school. For example, the faculty learned new teaching skills by interacting with deaf learners.

Johnson said the three seniors blazed a path for everyone.

"They have really risen to the occasion and met the challenge, and I am very proud of them," he said.

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.