Maine's First Virtual School Courts Parents of Prospective Students

Jul 17, 2014

Maine's first virtual school continues to sign up students ahead of an enrollment deadline at the end of the month. The state's charter school commission gave Maine Connections Academy more time to hit its minimum enrollment of 243 students, and the school says it will likely surpass that number. Jay Field attended an informational session on the school for prospective families in Bangor.

The parents take seats in Ballroom C at a local hotel on the outskirts of the city. Tables, along one wall, offer informational handouts on Connections Academy, the national parent company, and free tote bags.

"So, Connections Academy. We've actually been doing this for quite some time, since 2001." The session begins with an introduction by the man from the home office in charge of Maine. Alan Chapman works in the recruitment department at Connections Academy headquarters in Baltimore.

"We have, approximately, 26 states we're in," he says. "And when I say 'approximately,' it's just, sometimes, I just, we keep growing, every state. And I don't even think I'm including Maine. So it's probably 27."

Maine Connections has an in-state governing board. Its new principal and its teachers will be based here. Working out of South Portland, they'll be trained to use the same technology, and to master and deliver the same virtual approach to learning that the for-profit uses in all of its schools across the country.

For Maine, the opening of a completely online charter school is a step into the unknown. And much of Chapman's presentation seems dedicated to making families comfortable - with the kind of teachers the company hires: "We have won a lot of awards. We've won teacher of the year, administrator of the year."

With the core courses and online smorgasbord of electives: "We like to ask our families, 'What do you think?' This past year, we got 14,000 responses back. Ninety-four percent of them said the curriculum was high quality."

With the idea that going to a virtual high school is just like going to a brick and mortar one: "We do have clubs. Now the clubs can be - I'm not sure all of them are going to be available in Maine. They'll know that by the first day of school, or at least within the first 30 days of school. But it could be a debate club a chess club."

A short time later, Chapman wraps up and it's time for questions. This is the chance for parents to drill down on specific areas of concern. A big one is how virtual schools handle students with special needs.

"I have a question about flexibility," says Rachel Beckwith, who is a teacher herself, in the Bucksport schools. She's considering Maine Connections Academy for her 11-year-old daughter, who's currently in school in Hamden.

"So if I've got a student who is entering seventh grade, but doing work at a higher level, would she be able to take courses from higher grade levels?" she asks.

Another parent a few seats away jumps in. Say you have a kid, asks Carrie Thurston, who isn't in eighth grade yet, but is already "taking geometry. Can there be an a la carte element?" she wonders.

Thurston's son is gifted in some areas, like math, but not in others. Connections' Alan Chapman mulls it over.

"Because  he doesn't need to take eighth-grade math," Thurston says. "He's already done it."

"Well, here you go. In the process of enrollment, we get your student's transcripts," Chapman says.

If the transcript shows an advanced math student, Chapman reassures both parents, Connections won't make the student repeat subjects they've already mastered.

Thurston, it turns out, isn't considering sending her son to the virtual school. She came to get information because her local district is thinking about using some of the online programs the company sells, al la carte, to brick and mortar districts.

Beckwith, though, seems ready to sign her daughter up. "When you have a child who doesn't like the structure of a school day and you see the schedule up there and they can pick and choose what they want to do and when they want to do it, we'll be happy with that," she says.

As of July 15, the Maine Charter School Commission says 247 students have made a commitment to enroll at Maine Connections Academy. The school, which can accommodate as many as 297, will update the commission again on its enrollment numbers at the end of the month.