Maine’s first virtual charter school needs 200 applications to open next year

Posted April 21, 2014, at 7:25 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 04, 2014, at 4:42 p.m.
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough
Contributed photo
Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough

FALMOUTH, Maine — The first virtual charter school authorized by the Maine Charter Commission is on schedule to open in 2014-15, though it needs to receive almost 200 more applications by August, according to an organizer of the school.

Maine Connections Academy has received just over 50 intent-to-enroll applications, according to the school’s board chairwoman, Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough. The school must enroll 243 students in order to open its virtual doors in the 2014-15 school year.

“We’re happy with it,” Volk said of the number of students enrolled to date. “We haven’t done any advertising yet, which we intend to do.”

Members of the charter school commission met with representatives from Maine Connections Academy, including Volk, on Monday in Falmouth to work out details of the contract that the school will sign with the state.

Volk said discussion in the meeting focused on what would happen if enrollment did not reach 243, the minimum number needed to be financially viable, by August or dropped below that number during the school year. She said they worked out language that would give the charter commission discretion to decide not to open the school if enrollment was too low. If enrollment drops during the year, the school will have to alert the charter commission and it will be up to charter board whether to keep it open.

“Virtual charters do have a lot of churning,” Volk said. She explained that in virtual charter schools in other states, students often enroll temporarily, before filtering back into a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

“What happens if we have 243 and that drops to 240 two days later? We certainly wouldn’t want the commission to be bound to close the school down,” she said.

Charter commission chairwoman Jana Lapoint said the contract likely will be signed at the charter commission’s next meeting on May 6. She said the school will also have to give the commission enrollment numbers on June 1.

“We haven’t reached any final contract agreement yet,” Lapoint said, but added that they are “getting close.”

Amy Linscott, a member of Maine Connection Academy’s board, said Monday that a job description for the principal has been posted on the Connections Academy site and other job sites and there have been interested applicants. A salary was not listed in the job post.

Once a principal is hired, the board will work with him or her to hire teachers.

Linscott said in March that the plan is for all the teachers to work together at one location so they can plan and consult with each other about their students. Volk said Monday that the school was looking at sites in South Portland and Scarborough.

Students will work mostly from home, participating in lessons, taking assessments and communicating with their teachers through an online system called Connexus. Parents, teachers and students will use the system to keep track of students’ progress through each course. Since the school is public, enrollment will be free.

As of April 5, families can fill out an intent-to-enroll application for the 2014-15 school year for free.

Maine Connections Academy will cap enrollment at 297 students in grades seven through 12, according to its website. If more than 297 apply, there will be a lottery held on May 12 to select those who will enroll in the fall. Students must submit an intent-to-enroll application by May 5 to be considered in the lottery.

West Gardiner resident Karinna Dawbin said she has filled out an intent-to-enroll application for two of her daughters who are going into ninth and seventh grades.

“It’s a certified public school so she gets the diploma,” said Dawbin, referring to her older daughter, who is currently home-schooled. “We’re looking forward to that.”

“There’s a lot more options for her in classes which would be exciting,” she added.

Lee resident Jennifer Dodge, who has three daughters who will be the right age to enroll, said Monday that she and her children had not yet decided if they would apply. When she and her family lived in Pennsylvania last year, two of her daughters were enrolled in Connections Academy and she said she was very happy with their experience.

“We’ll wait and see what happens with the contract,” she said. “You don’t want to discuss too much with the kids unless it’s definitely an option.”

Charter schools are funded by the hometowns of the students they enroll, according to the Maine Department of Education website. When a student chooses to attend, his or her local school district pays the charter school a tuition rate that is set by the state, instead of spending that money in a brick-and-mortar school.

The virtual school in Maine will operate under the umbrella of Connections Academy, a company that ran 25 virtual charter schools in 23 states in the 2013-14 school year, according to its website.

Connections Academy is owned by Pearson PLC, a London-based publicly traded publishing company that is responsible for many standardized tests and textbooks used in the U.S.

Maine Connections Academy will hold live and virtual information sessions for families interested in the school between April 30 and the start of the school year. There will be an information session at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 5, at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Bangor.

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