SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine’s first virtual charter school is undergoing its first comprehensive evaluation as it seeks to renew its state charter, five years after it launched amid concerns around local schools’ independence from national companies contracted to provide extensive services and whether students would succeed in an online learning environment. 

Maine Connections Academy is also seeking to lift its enrollment cap and expand into two new grades.

The Maine Charter School Commission will vote on the renewal, which can be for up to 10 years, on Tuesday and take up the enrollment cap and expansion at a later date.

The school, which currently serves grades seven through 12, is enrolled at maximum capacity, 429 students, and has about 85 students on a waiting list, according to Principal Chad Strout. 

Under state law, all charter schools must go through a comprehensive evaluation at the five-year mark to renew their charters. In addition to evaluating student outcomes and organizational models, the commission considers attendance, financial stability and governance. 

In its renewal application, the school reported having grade-level test scores on the state 2016-17 state assessment that were either equal to or better than statewide averages, but assessment data released by the state shows that the school average was below state averages in math and science, and above the state average in English. 

The percentage of MCA students at or above grade level in math was 29 percent, compared to 39 percent statewide; in science, 53 percent of MCA students were at or above grade level, compared to 61 percent statewide; and in English, they were at 61 percent, compared to 53 percent statewide.

State assessment results for the 2017-18 school year are scheduled to being released by the state on Monday.

The school also reported financial stability: MCA currently receives about $4 million from the state, pays 55 percent of it to the Pearson PLC affiliate that provides educational services and has a $1 million cash balance after meeting current liabilities.

The national education services provider provides an array of online tools for students, administrators and teachers, including lesson plans and class lectures, daily student planners and an intranet for school announcements. For administrators, the company provides back-office support, including professional development training, IT support, and legal and human resources services.

One chronic issue with charters in general and virtual charters in particular is retention – many times a student chooses a school after having a problem in traditional public schools, or reached the end of viable home-schooling. Strout said a majority of MCA students were previously home-schooled, a large number are from public schools where “it wasn’t working for them,” and a smaller number want a virtual school because of competing demands, such as sports or a profession.

Strout said about 60 percent of MCA students return for a second year, adding that some students come to MCA until a situation is resolved – bullying in a school, or an illness – then return to a traditional public school.

Strout also noted that a large number of students leave at the end of the first semester, likely as a result of finding the school harder academically than anticipated, or because a virtual environment does not work for the student or family. In the 2017-18 school year, after Strout was named principal and made changes to attendance and academic standards, 20 percent of the students withdrew after the first semester. Strout said he thinks that will go down now that the school has adopted the new standards.

Prior to his arrival, MCA was “not really holding kids accountable that weren’t doing the work – it was too much on the supporting side, not so much (on) the academic side,” he said. When he arrived, he said, “I spread the message: These are the expectations. We are here to support the heck out of you, but you (the student) need to attend live lessons, you need to communicate with teachers. Not participating is not an option.” 

“We have seen a big difference at MCA this year. That’s been great,” he said. 

Maine Connections Academy opened in 2014 after a yearslong struggle to meet charter commission requirements. A year later, Maine Virtual Academy opened.

Virtual charter schools faced particular skepticism by some in Maine, in part because of outcomes in other states and concerns over how much local control the Maine school operators would have since the schools outsource many school functions to out-of-state, for-profit entities. That led the Maine Charter School Commission to require Maine Connections Academy to change its initial business plan and hire the teachers and administrators directly.

Maine Connections Academy gets its educational services from an affiliate of Pearson PLC in London, a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and publishes textbooks, known as Pearson Online & Blended Learning K-12 USA, formerly Connections Education.

Maine Sunday Telegram investigation in 2012, when charter schools were first being proposed in Maine, found that the national online education companies K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia, and the Pearson-affiliated company behind Maine Connections Academy were shaping Maine’s digital education policies. 

Department of Education Commissioner Bob Hasson said he feels “very positive” about charters in Maine in general, but had no opinion on the specific renewal of Maine Connections Academy.

“This was one of (Gov. LePage’s) priorities at the beginning of his first administration and, from my perspective over the last few years, they have bloomed and evolved. They are beyond what I thought was quite possible.”

The Maine Education Association, which represents teachers, remains opposed in general to charter schools, according to President Grace Leavitt. However, she did not have an opinion on the specific renewal of Connections.

Advocates like that virtual schools are very flexible. Each student receives a personal learning plan, and the school mails students a desktop computer, schoolbooks, and class supplies, such as test tubes and petri dishes for science classes – the entire setup for a classroom at home.

Students check in daily for assignments and lessons, but spend most of their school time alone, or with a learning coach – usually a parent – and set their own hours for lessons, studying, projects and tests.

Each course meets for a “live lesson” for one hour each week, when the teacher and all the students meet in an online group chat, similar to a Skype session. The students see their teacher via webcam or they walk through a lesson onscreen while the teacher lectures.

About 2,200 of Maine’s roughly 181,000 students attend charter schools. 

Maine’s charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts and report instead to a board of directors. They have to follow most state education laws, such as reporting truancy, taking annual assessments, having Maine-certified teachers and following the state’s academic learning results. 

Maine’s nine charter schools include two virtual schools and two schools that offer residential options. There is no limit on the number of charters that could be opened by a school board within the boundaries of its school administrative unit, but so far no district has pursued a charter.

By law, the state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021. Total state funding for charter schools is $25.7 million in 2018-19.

Last year, the commission renewed three charter schools: Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland and Fiddlehead School of Arts & Sciences in Gray were renewed for 10 years and Harpswell Coastal Academy was renewed for five years.

The Maine Charter School Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to renew the state charter for Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school. (Portland Press Herald file photo)

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