Portland, Maine Offers New Online Academic Program

Portland Public School District is offering an online academic program starting this fall, the Maine organization has announced.

The new program would allow homeschooled students to take all their classes online through Pearson, the vendor which already works with state charter schools, registering as direct students. It is unclear how many grades will be allowed to participate in coming years. The program will begin for grades 7-12.

"We recognize the educational landscape is changing. It is incumbent upon us to compete," Caulk said. "We want to target homeschooled students and parents who, for whatever reason, are choosing online learning. We want to provide an in-district option for students considering a free statewide (virtual) charter school."

According to Caulk, there are "major similarities" between the new program and Maine Connections Academy, the online charter school in the state. However, the district has other resources to offer, and as such, "I think we can do better," Caulk said.

Last year, nine students left the public school district to attend the charter school. This year, that number has increased to 31.

Under the new program, students will receive individualized instruction and may participate in all district events, including field trips, social events and extracurricular activities. A drop-in learning center will be available for students during special hours.

One former public school teacher who now homeschools her children, Belinda Ray, said that while the program would be intriguing to some, it should not be intended to be a replacement for all homeschool families.

"Absolutely, but not necessarily every homeschooler (would be interested), because homeschoolers do run the gamut from people who replicate the school experience at home to people who are doing something totally different," Ray said. Her own 17-year-old sons, for example, take some classes at Southern Maine Community College as part of their homeschooling plan.

The program, still in its early stages, has not made details available to the public as of yet. The school board has yet to be briefed, and at that point the district will be reaching out to homeschool families. Computers and hardware will be provided to families who participate.

 "This is a short-term turnkey solution," said Caulk, who has been sharply critical of charter schools in the past. "As we built it out, if we get students and the program begins to grow, we could look at a longer, more sustainable plan. I don't want to imply that a charter school would be the direction we would go in, but we would look at the various options out there."

According to state law, school districts are free to create their own charter schools.

There are currently six charter schools in operation in Maine, publicly funded but are independent of the public school system, that were approved by the Maine Charter School Commission. State law requires there be no more than 10 charter schools until 2021. Those set up through local districts do not need approval of the commission, but do fall under the cap.

When a student signs up for the program the district receives funding, but some of that will be given to Pearson for providing the instruction materials. The district said that after they pay Pearson $4,250 a year per child, they plan on pocketing $2,000 per student who enrolls. Currently the district receives no funding for homeschooled children.

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