PORTLAND, Maine — The head of a group hoping to establish the first charter school in Portland said his organization has a deal to locate Baxter Academy for Technology and Science at 54 York St., and is confident the school will have its first students next fall.

John Jaques is the executive director of the organization proposing the school, which he said he hopes will grow into the 20,000-square-foot building by ramping up to a full complement of 320 enrolled students within three years of opening.

Jaques said Baxter Academy aims to welcome an inaugural class of about 160 high school students in September 2012, building the academic program around science, technology, engineering and mathematics — commonly grouped together under the acronym STEM — projects.

In a recent interview with Bangor Daily News, Jaques acknowledged language in the new state law permitting charter schools that many feared would delay school openings until fall 2013. The wording allowed for proposed charters to open enrollment for just a three-week window in January, a period that likely will come and go before any organization will have a chance to go through the state’s nascent permitting process.

But Jaques said that after talks with state Department of Education officials, he’s confident lawmakers and state education officials will amend the enrollment limitations to allow for a September 2012 opening.

On Friday, he officially announced the charter high school has signed an agreement to lease 54 York St., portions of which he said currently are occupied by tenants on short-term leases.

In accordance with state law, students will be selected to attend the academy based on a blind lottery.

Maine is the 41st state to adopt legislation to allow the schools. The charter school law allows the approval of up to 10 public charter schools in the next 10 years by the Maine State Charter School Commission. In addition, individual public school boards can convert schools within their districts into charter schools, which allows them to create education programs free from some of the restrictions and regulations that apply to public schools.

The latter option is being investigated in Bangor, where the public school district is seeking to establish a specialized STEM high school program within the department.

In Portland, the proposed charter high school is a standalone nonprofit organization.

In addition to being able to seek federal grant money set aside to help establish charter schools, the new institutions will be funded by public dollars that follow new students from their traditional school systems. For high school, the state tuition rate per student is about $9,000.

Baxter Academy, said Jaques, would seek to create partnerships with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute — less than a block away — and other area institutions working in research and technology such as the University of Southern Maine.

USM faculty members Robert Kuech and Robert Sanford, among others, are on Baxter Academy’s advisory board, which has been working on developing the foundation for the school for more than nine months.

Such partnerships dovetail with the goals of newly elected Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who has long called for the establishment of a “research triangle” in the area, as well as recently launched STEM education advocacy groups such as the Reach Center.

“We have to justify the need for the school, and justifying the need for STEM education is a home run for us,” Jaques said.

But Jaques also said school organizers hope to include strong arts and humanities components in the curriculum as well, addressing what has often been a critique of specialized schools.

“There’s no program like what we’re planning,” Jaques said. “We want to take the expeditionary learning model used at Casco Bay High School [in Portland] and apply it to STEM education.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.