Maine’s First Virtual School Goes Live in September

Maine will be opening its first online school for grades 7-12 just after Labor Day. The school, Maine Connections Academy, will be run by Connections Education, a for-profit organization based in Baltimore, Maryland.

Connections Education has charter schools in more than 20 states, was created in 2001, and acquired in 2011 by British education company Pearson PLC. Brendan Twist of the Forecaster in Portland reports that the curriculum provided by the online school aligns with the state's Common Core standards.

Students can log on and take lessons at any time. They can perform any work for their courses at any time. Also, there is one live lesson each week, when teachers and students can interact.

"It's an individual approach to education," said Karl Francis, who served as a counselor in the Westbrook School Department for the past nine years and was hired last month as Maine Connections Academy's principal. "It's for the non-traditional students who are looking for a non-traditional education."

Although the school will offer field trips and events, they will take place in Portland, so students in other areas might not be able to take advantage of these "extras". There are, according to Francis, plans for a facility in Bangor in future years, but no solid decisions have been made.

Some potential problems brought up by teachers and parents are:

– Socialization concerns for children who do not attend brick and mortar schools

– Minimizing the teachers' roles and undercutting teachers' unions

– These schools are in existence only to save the state money and put money into the pockets of the corporate backers

Julie Hannon, one of Maine Connections Academy's volunteer board members, thinks that concerns about socialization and virtual schooling have been blown out of proportion.

"The best thing about this school is it offers an option for parents and students that they don't otherwise have," Hannon said. "The brick and mortar is not the only way to educate a child, and there are many students who are not successful in that environment. This is another environment that allows them to pursue success. Is every student going to be successful? No. But a lot of them will."

Some parents remain dubious, cautious, and want to make sure they are making the correct choice for their children before enrolling them in Maine Connections Academy.

Nell Gluckman, writing for the Bangor Daily News, says that Principal Francis is optimistic about the fact that each students in his school will have an individualized learning plan (ILP).

 "I hear from families who really don't know where to turn next because the traditional setting is not working out," he said. When that happens, he said, "often the attendance drops."

The school has until July 15 to meet its minimum enrollment, 243 students, which the charter commission said would justify the need for the school.

WCSH-Bangor, reports that for the past year, Bangor has had a moratorium on charter schools, but the rule does not apply to virtual schools, since they don't have a physical location. Still, city officials are concerned about the financial burden of a charter school that is taking money away from an already strained budget.

"Every student that comes out of the Bangor school system that would enroll in this, we are going to be paying for it. Property tax payers will, to the tune of $9,000 per student," said Councilor Joe Baldacci.

Supporters disagree, pointing out that the funding is following the student, not taking money away from schools. Bangor's charter school moratorium ended at the end of June, and councilors plan to readdress the issue.

07 14, 2014
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