SOUTH PORTLAND — Walk into Maine Connections Academy looking for a school and you might think you’ve gotten lost and stepped through the wrong door.

Past the reception area and an adjoining conference room are groups of cubicles. In those cubicles, a cadre of employees wearing headsets work at computers. At first glance, the office, inside a large business development complex near the Maine Mall, appears to be a call center or collections agency — until you hear the conversations.

“So, who can tell me what time period we’ve been focusing on for the past week?” One of the employees, Andres “Andy” Martinez, said into his headset, pausing to wait for responses to pop up in the instant messaging window.

“OK, Hunter says the 1800s. Can someone get a little more specific than Hunter?” Martinez asked, looking at a computer screen displaying a historical map of the United States and an instant messaging window.

“There you go, the 1820s-1860s, the period leading up to the Civil War,” Martinez said.

Martinez is a middle school social studies teacher at Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school. He’s one of eight teachers who work from the South Portland office; one works from her home in Fort Kent.

They’re helping shape a new frontier in education, giving Maine students the option of staying home, using a computer to learn from teachers who could be sitting five hours away, and earning a degree without stepping into a traditional classroom.

“Exciting, rewarding, chaotic at times,” Principal Karl Francis said in describing the school’s first year. “Everything we do is a first.”

The school is also under the microscope, with lawmakers, education officials, “traditional” public school administrators, parents and skeptics curious to see its performance results and how its operations are managed.

The state is trying to map uncharted territory, shaping laws meant to ease concerns about the funding, accountability and performance problems found at similar schools elsewhere in the nation.

Meanwhile, another virtual player is joining the game. The second virtual charter approved by the state, Maine Virtual Academy, is preparing for its debut in September.

The test case

Maine Connections Academy is approaching the close of its first year. The first crop of seniors — just five strong — will graduate during a small ceremony in a conference room at the Maine Principals’ Association headquarters in Augusta in June. Next year, the school, which is open to students in grades seven through 12, expects to graduate closer to 50 students.

The school plans to grow this year. This fall, MCA will be allowed to increase its enrollment to a maximum of 385 students. Francis expects enrollment, which is now open, to fall in the 350 range.

It was approved for 270 students in its debut year, though its contract with the state allowed it to surpass or fall short of that amount by 10 percent.

How does virtual school work at MCA?

After a student enrolls, the school sends a computer with necessary software and textbooks, as well as any other needed materials, to his or her home. There’s no cost to the parents, as their child’s education is funded largely by taxpayers in the student’s sending district, as if the child were attending their home district’s brick-and-mortar school.

Students are expected to “attend” a certain number of “live lessons” during the week, during which they log onto their computers and listen to a teacher deliver a lecture, sometimes by webcam. Students participate in the lesson by typing responses, thoughts and questions into a chat box.

Most teachers stop doing live lessons after lunchtime. Then they start calling students, following up with those that have struggled with a concept, individually or in groups. Teachers can draw on a virtual blackboard and build presentations and slideshows. If a student misses or wants to review a past live lesson, they can listen to recorded sessions.

Some students work weeks ahead, while others work at a slower pace and might fall behind. They are expected to spend at least five hours per day doing schoolwork.

Instructors come from a variety of backgrounds.

Kern Philigence, the high school social studies teacher, is pursuing a doctoral degree in curriculum design from Northcentral University. He has been teaching for about 10 years, most of which was spent in Orlando, Florida. Doug Bourget, who teaches middle school English, earned a teaching master’s degree at the University of Southern California. He has taught in Maine and South Korea. His interest in virtual education was piqued when he took online courses at USC. Robert Young, the high school science teacher, taught in traditional schools across Maine for 34 years, including 29 years at Windham High School. He came out of retirement to join MCA.

The teachers say they sometimes miss the face-to-face contact with students but see advantages in the virtual model. For example, their lesson plans, curriculum and materials are prepared by Connections Education, a national company offering public online education, which is now part of Pearson Education. Grading is largely automated, so teachers don’t spend as much time grading responses but can quickly see what questions and subjects students might be struggling with.

That frees up more time to interact with students who aren’t rushing off to their next class or to catch a bus, according to Young.

“I’ve had some of the best 20-, 30-minute conversations, with students and parents, of my career at this desk,” Young said.

MCA arranges monthly field trips across the state to give students a chance for social interaction that they miss by attending school at home. Earlier this month, a group went to a sugar shack in southern Maine. Past trips have brought groups to Colby College, the Twitchell Observatory in South Paris, and Presque Isle.

The school also recently announced a partnership with the University of Maine at Fort Kent to offer courses for early college credits.

“We’ve learned a lot this year,” Francis said. “We certainly have room to grow, but I think we’ve done a great job in our first year meeting the needs of kids.”

Better for some, not all

Students and parents are becoming part of Maine’s virtual charter experiment for myriad reasons. Some of those reasons are on display on the “brag wall” inside Maine Connections Academy’s entryway.

Pictures of students tacked to that wall show them riding horses, dressed up for dance routines, flying off ski jumps or catching a wave at some far-off beach.

Some are professional athletes or musicians whose practice schedules or Olympic Games aspirations don’t mesh with 8 a.m.-3 p.m. schooldays. Others suffer from illnesses that make it tough to get out of bed or leave their homes in the morning. Some were bullied in public schools and want to learn away from that negative influence. Others have social anxiety problems or disabilities that make it difficult to cope in a traditional environment.

Erik Wickett spent his first seven years of education in traditional public school.

The seventh-grader has high energy and a short attention span, according to his parents, Craig and Heidi Wickett of Glenburn. He stepped on the bus every morning and spent 45 minutes waiting to get to school, where he spent 6½ hours learning with short breaks between classes and for lunch before getting back on the bus for another 45 minutes to get home and sit down to do homework.

His pent-up energy caused him to fidget and interject during class, distracting both himself and other students, according to the Wicketts.

At the start of this school year, Erik’s parents signed him up to become one of the first virtual students in Maine. His mother, Heidi, works at a rental car company and his father, Craig, is an employee at a hardware store. Their full-time schedules mean they can’t stay home to watch and work with Erik during the day, so Erik heads to his grandmother’s house four days a week.

“Last year he was so stressed that he was getting sick a lot,” said Erik’s grandmother Marilyn Harlow.

The new model allows Erik to do his schoolwork alongside his grandmother, who tells him to go walk the dogs or go get some exercise if he starts to get antsy or distracted after a few hours of work. Then he’s ready to get back at it.

“Its awesome,” Erik said. “I can go at my own pace.”

His parents like the fact that they can track how Erik is performing in his classes in real time. They say Erik has an 88 percent grade point average right now, whereas he was earning mostly C’s and D’s in traditional school.

Early MCA data indicate that in the school’s first semester, all grade levels had a “course completion rate” above 80 percent in language arts, math, science and social studies. “Completion” means finishing the semester with a passing grade. The exception was ninth-grade math, where the completion rate was 77 percent, according to the school.

MCA doesn’t yet have scores for Maine Learning Results, which the state uses to measure school performance and student proficiency. The state’s school districts, including MCA and other charters, are in the midst of taking Smarter Balanced assessments for the first time. The results will give the state and Charter School Commission a baseline against which to measure performance.

The Maine Department of Education expects testing results to go public sometime in August.

The Wicketts say Erik has progressed from a C or D student to an A or B student since switching to virtual school. Erik said he hopes to graduate with a high school degree from Maine Connections Academy.

“I wish (Maine Connections Academy) had college, too,” Erik said.

Still, “we’re not a perfect fit for everybody,” Francis said.

“Many families enroll with MCA for a short period of time to overcome a challenge (academically, socially or personally), and once the family has navigated through an issue, they may decide to return to their previous school,” Francis wrote in a recent email.

Maine Connections Academy had a withdrawal rate of 21 percent this year, a rate consistent with enrollment trends at virtual charters across the country, according to Francis.

One of the students who decided to leave was 15-year-old Caleb Howard of Auburn. The ninth-grader started out the year at Maine Connections Academy, having spent his previous years being home-schooled.

By the time Caleb was preparing to enter high school, both of his parents were working full-time jobs and no longer could teach him at home, so Caleb enrolled in Maine Connections Academy.

Caleb only lasted two or three months at his new school. He spent five days a week at home alone, trying to keep up with his schoolwork.

“I, personally, am not very motivated all the time,” Caleb said during a recent interview. He got up in the morning, sometimes put off his lessons, and took “way too long” to accomplish his tasks for the day, he said.

He also struggled with working at a computer all day, battling headaches from reading on a screen, and “was really hurting socially” in the first weeks of school before field trips became more common.

He said he enjoyed his teachers at MCA and that “they really know what they’re talking about.”

Still, Howard withdrew from virtual courses after the first quarter and enrolled at Edward Little High School.

“It’s all right,” Howard said, explaining that he has felt like a “fish out of water” transitioning to a traditional public school for the first time in his life.

“There’s people everywhere,” he laughed.

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