Maine Proceeding Cautiously with Virtual Schools


Maine has opened its first virtual school in an effort to offer students a more flexible way to receive their education, through using a computer at home to communicate with teachers, instead of going to traditional classrooms.

As it is Maine Connections Academy’s first year, it is being closely watched by state lawmakers, education officials, traditional school administrators, parents and skeptics, all of whom are waiting to see if the school succeeds performance-wise and how their operations are managed.

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

The idea of a virtual school is new to the state, so laws are currently being changed to reflect concerns pertaining to funding, accountability, and performance problems, writes Nick McCrea for The Bangor Daily News.

The Legislature and education leaders continue to be at odds over how to measure, monitor and pay for the schools.  Currently in Maine, the district where the student resides receives a bill for the student, and then sends a check to the charter school the student is attending.  However, proposed legislation would like to treat charter schools as their own district, having the state provide the funding directly to them.

Students who enroll in the school are provided with a computer stocked with the needed software, textbooks, and any other necessary materials.  All of the equipment comes at no cost to the parents.  Instead, each child’s education is mostly funded by taxpayers who reside in the district that the child would be attending if they went to a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

Students must log onto their computers to participate in a certain number of “live lessons” each week.  Sometimes this is listening to a teacher giving a lecture, while other times it is participation through webcam.  A chat box is used to allow students to type in responses, thoughts and questions.  Recorded sessions are available for students who miss a lesson or want to review one.

The school allows students to work at their own pace.  Each student is expected to participate for at least 5 hours each week.

While the school has only 5 seniors this year as its first graduating class, the school plans to open its doors to students in grades 7 through 12 and expects to graduate around 50 students next year.  The school was approved to enroll 270 students in its first year, but is being allowed to increase that number to a maximum of 385 students.

At the same time, the state is gearing up to open its second virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy, which is enrolling students for September.