For first academic year, Maine’s two charter schools receive high marks

Posted Oct. 31, 2013, at 4:53 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s first two charter schools sailed through their first-annual monitoring reviews by the Maine Charter School Commission with no major problems.

However, as with virtually any school, funding could prove to be a struggle moving forward, particularly in the area of facility maintenance.

Cornville Regional Charter School, which in its first year served 60 students in grades K-6, and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, which served 52 students in grades 9-12, both opened in the fall of 2012 after the enactment of Maine’s first-ever law allowing charter schools in 2011. As part of the approval process with the charter commission, both schools signed extensive contracts outlining their responsibilities for everything from student instruction to lunch programs. According to documents on the commission’s website, both schools are meeting their benchmarks across the board.

“We couldn’t be happier with what they’re doing,” said Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the commission. “They have good boards and solid faculty, and they’ve come through their first year just wonderfully.”

The schools, both of which have structured plans to increase their enrollments, were lauded by the commission in a variety of areas, including the individual attention given to students, their achievement of well above 90 percent student attendance and their engagement of students’ families in the learning process.

“Parents showed strong support and appreciation for the charter school, stating that kids were ‘learning at their own levels’ [and] ‘learning like never before,’” according to the assessment for Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.

The commission’s conclusions about the Cornville school were similar.

“Parents showed strong support and appreciation for the charter school, stating that kids were ‘learning at their own levels,’ ‘blossoming like never before,’ [and] ‘there are no cracks for kids to fall through like in larger schools,’” according to Cornville’s assessment.

Justin Belanger, executive director of Cornville Regional Charter School, agreed with Lapoint that the commission’s requirements are more rigorous than traditional public schools are held to because, in addition to being subject to the same state and federal reporting requirements, charter schools also must abide by their contracts with the commission. However, Belanger said that because the commission’s requirements are detailed so well in the contract, the school knows where to put its focus.

“The commission is here to monitor us and watch over us but not in an adversarial way,” said Belanger. “They truly want to help us to meet our goals and to become better. They’re looking in their monitoring process to help us, not to try to penalize us.”

One of the requirements for charter schools, just like other public schools, is that their students must achieve certain academic benchmarks, including continuous improvement. Because the schools opened just last year, their test scores are considered starting points by the commission.

However, Cornville students scored above the state average in reading and math in the New England Common Assessment Program, which was administered in the first days of school. At Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, where juniors took the SAT, which is Maine’s high school assessment tool, the class size was too small for the results to be released to the public because of privacy laws, according to the Department of Education. However, 12 of the 13 members of last year’s senior class completed at least one course at Kennebec Valley Community College, and all of them graduated.

Officials from Maine Academy of Natural Sciences could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The commission did express some concerns about the schools’ finances, particularly how they’ll keep up with facilities costs. Though both schools ended their first academic year with balanced books — and Cornville with a $60,000 surplus on a budget of about $500,000, according to Belanger — the commission recommended that the schools seek new funding sources. Charter schools in Maine receive a financial allocation for each student that is enrolled, which is deducted from subsidies for the schools the students transfer from, but by law are not eligible for the state’s school facilities funding.

Lapoint said that contracts with charter schools in Maine are for five years, and a failure by a charter school to meet the terms could result in non-renewal of the contract, though neither Maine Academy of Natural Sciences nor Cornville are in danger of that.

“The better you document your monitoring plan from Day One, the easier it will be for schools at the end of their contract,” said Lapoint. “I would suspect that you would know by the third year for sure if a school was on solid or shaky ground.”

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said in a prepared statement that he was pleased with the schools’ performance so far.

“Maine’s new public charter schools are delivering on their commitment to put students first,” said Rier. “With this encouraging report from an independent commission and the continued overwhelmingly positive student and family feedback and outcomes, it’s time to move beyond the debate about publicly funded charter schools in our state and accept they are here to stay and serving the best interest of their students well.”

House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who voted against the charter school law, said in a prepared statement that the funding mechanism for charter schools remains a concern for Democrats.

“It’s always great to see good news about students and their schools, but the success of charter schools should not come at the expense of our public schools,” said Berry, who was a teacher for two decades. “We’ve got to make sure we are serving all Maine students, not siphoning resources from our local community schools and the taxpayers who support them.”

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