AUGUSTA — Maine Virtual Academy is one of nine state-approved, publicly funded charter schools in Maine, and one of two online schools in the state.
Maine Virtual Academy opened in September 2015 after approval by the Maine Charter School Commission, the state oversight body within the Maine Department of Education.
Despite its “virtual” name, MVA has a real headquarters with real rooms — all at the Ballard Center, a building that used to be MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta.
At the Ballard Center, teachers give lessons on a regular schedule, Monday through Friday, “just like a brick-and-mortar school,” said Melinda Browne, director of the academy.
Students learn through computers at their homes or other locations. They are able to ask questions and interact with teachers, “just like a regular class,” Browne said.
The academy is a grades seven through 12 school with 390 students. It follows the same Maine Learning Results academic standards and calendar as public schools.
“We’ve never had a snow day,” Browne said, “so we tend to be done on June 15.”
Maine public charter schools were created by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. State law allows up to 10 until 2021, when that cap is lifted, according to Bob Kautz, executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, which oversees how charter schools are regulated.
There is no typical student who attends a virtual school, Browne said, adding that students need be motivated. Often, virtual school students are heavily involved in some kind of competition, such as athletics, and learning online gives them flexibility to travel.
Virtual schools also help students who are ill or even hospitalized and students who do not do well in big settings or who want to step out of the drama that public schools can sometimes deliver.
Virtual schools have been growing in popularity and often have admissions waiting lists, Kautz said, adding that some students lose interest when they learn what is involved.
Some students apply for admission with the misconception that online schooling will be easier, he said. Some who are accepted withdraw when they discover online learning can be rigorous.
A retired public school superintendent from the Wells-Ogunquit area, Kautz said he has always supported charter schools. But like other superintendents, he was initially concerned that charter schools would take state education funding away from school districts.
Initially, state education money for charter schools was subtracted from individual districts. When a student left a public school to attend a charter school, the state money left the local school budget and followed the student to the charter school.
In recent years, the funding has been changed: Charter school funding now comes from the overall state education budget, not individual districts.
While there are still critics, the funding change has quieted many opponents who had complained that charter schools hurt public schools by taking away resources.
Public charter schools are overseen by the commission and undergo annual reviews. If not performing as they should be, “we can pull their (license to operate),” Kautz said.
Since they were first authorized in 2012, charter schools are making a positive difference for children in Maine, Kautz said.
“We’re hearing from a lot of students who are achieving in charter schools, who were not successful in their prior schools for a number of reasons,” he said.
Charter schools “give that choice to the students.”
Bob Kautz is executive director of the Maine Charter School Commission, which has state oversight of public charter schools in Maine. The schools provide a choice for students and are making a positive difference, according to Kautz. (Submitted photo)
Students of Maine Virtual Academy take all online courses. MVA is one of two publicly funded virtual charter schools in Maine. (Submitted photo)