February 6, 2013

One student finds room to grow at sciences academy

Alexander West grabs governor's attention as typical charter school student

By Rachel Ohm rohm@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD -- Seventeen-year-old Alexander West has attended four high schools in the last four years. Finally, in his senior year, he said he has found the place that's right for him.

click image to enlarge

Alex West, 17, left, jams with his friend, Tim Thompson, 16, at their residence hall cottage on the Good Will-Hinckley campus in Hinckley on Wednesday. Gov. LePage spoke about West during his State of the State address in Augusta Tuesday night.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seaman

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West, who is at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, said he likes the charter school's sense of community and the freedom to develop his own projects, including the root vegetable cellar he is working on now, for school credit.

His teachers and administrators said he is thriving, and he was chosen to speak with Gov. Paul LePage and state legislators before the State of the State address Tuesday night.

"It was cool. I went to the State House and the governor's Cabinet room and met with the legislators. I'm very happy that they support our school," West said.

He was asked to stand up as the governor spoke about the state of education in Maine and the future of charter schools.

"As a whole, Maine is not achieving academic growth at a competitive rate. This is unacceptable. But the good news is, we can reverse it," said LePage, who also said he supports school choice and more options for students who do not thrive in traditional classroom settings.

Earlier in the week, the state Charter School Commission approved the applications of two new charter schools. The Harpswell Coastal Academy and the Fiddlehead School of Arts and Sciences in Gray are both expected to open this fall. That will increase the number of Maine charter schools to five. The commission may approve up to five more by 2021.

Glenn Cummings, president and executive director of the Fairfield charter school, said West was chosen to speak with the governor because he fit the profile of a typical student there.

"I think he is a good representative of our school because he was unsure about the idea of going to college but is open to it, and he likes agriculture and the environment," Cummings said.

In his address, LePage credited his career to an education at a parochial school and said options such as charter schools have provided students such as West with bright futures.

West, who is from Hartland, started his high school freshman year in Skowhegan and transferred twice before ending up at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport his junior year. In between, he attended schools in Jackman and Hampden.

"My family moved a lot, and I never really found a place where I felt engaged," said West, an only child who lived with his mother, a massage therapist, before moving to the Fairfield campus.

West is one of 28 students at the school who live in residential cottages. The school is the only charter school that offers residential housing to its students, said Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the state's charter commission.

"It's not that the other schools were bad. I just felt that I wasn't being challenged, so I didn't try; and when I didn't try, I would fail," West said of his experience at other public schools.

He said he was considering enrolling in an alternative education program at Nokomis when he heard about the charter school. The root cellar, which will be used to store crops grown at the school's garden for use during the winter, was an idea that he had before starting at the charter school and something he has worked on all year.

Cummings said it fits in well with the school's main themes: agriculture, forestry and the environment.

"Pretty much everyone here is working on a project, and it's nice that a lot of them are focused on improving the school community. We're definitely supportive of each other," said Samantha White, 17, who is also a student at the school and a classmate and friend of West's.

West said he has been able to get mathematics and science credit for the root cellar project, and that if he were to write something to go along with it, he could get English credit. He has applied for a grant to cover the estimated cost of the project. Meanwhile, he is also taking a class at Kennebec Valley Community College a few miles away for credit.

"A year ago when I met Alex, he was wondering how he was going to get through high school. Now he is enrolled in college classes," Cummings said.

Rachel Ohm -- 612-2368

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