BANGOR, Maine — The 280-plus students attending Maine’s first virtual charter school connect from as far south as Kittery, as far east as Eastport and as far north as Madawaska, according to the most recent data provided by school officials.
Students at the school, called Maine Connections Academy, finished their first week of online classes Friday. A breakdown detailing which school district each student came from — dated Sept. 2 — showed that 281 students from 88 different districts were enrolled. That list is expected to increase to up to 297 students as more complete the lengthy process of enrolling.
“The first week went really well,” Kelsie Washington, a 15-year-old student from Caribou, said. “I only had one difficulty. Once I called technical support, they fixed it right away.”
Maine Connections Academy has drawn many students from the more heavily populated areas in Maine, according to school board member Amy Volk, with about 30 students each from Cumberland, Penobscot and York counties.
But a large number of students come from Maine’s rural school districts. Regional School Unit 17, which serves the communities of Oxford, West Paris, Norway, Harrison, Hebron, Otisfield, South Paris and Waterford, sent 12 students to the virtual school — the most of any district in the state. RSU 9, which serves 10 communities in the Farmington area, and RSU 6, which serves Buxton, Oxford, Limington and Standish, each sent 10 students.
These seventh- through 12th-graders will take all their classes online using a program called Connexus. They are taught by eight teachers — four who focus on grades seven and eight and four who focus on high school. The teachers work from an office in South Portland with a principal, a manager of counseling services, a special education coordinator and an administrative assistant.
Principal Karl Francis said Friday there are many students in Maine who could benefit from an online public school.
“This is my 17th year in education, and I’ve known for a long time that there was this need in the state,” he said.
Francis worked for the Westbrook School Department before he joined Maine Connections Academy.
“As a guidance counselor, most of my time was spent working with students who had barriers to the traditional setting,” he said.
Francis said each teacher taught one live lesson this first week using a camera and microphone. Students listen on headsets and can call in to ask questions or post comments in a chat box that their classmates and instructor can see. Class sizes vary between 16 and 25 students, Francis said.
The students spent the rest of the week making their way through a curriculum established by Connections Academy, the for-profit company that works with Maine Connections Academy and many other online schools across the country. 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 is funded through the school districts where the students would otherwise attend. School districts with students who attend a charter school pay the charter school an allocation, which includes state and local funding, for each student.
Several superintendents have expressed concern about the funding structure, because they have no way of knowing how many of their students will attend the virtual charter or how much money they will need to send.
While the students work, their teachers monitor their progress and provide feedback. Teachers’ “office hours” are between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Francis said.
Families decide to use the virtual public school for a variety of reasons, Francis said, including physical disabilities or medical conditions that make it difficult for kids to attend a brick-and-mortar school or serious commitments to sports. He said several students’ families travel for several months during the year. He estimated that between 75 and 100 students previously had been home-schooled.
Washington, a junior, said she enrolled at the virtual school so she could keep up with her busy dance schedule. She travels to Bangor, Houlton and Millinocket often for ballet and dances 15 to 20 hours a week, which she used to miss school to attend.
Francis said there are 175 families on a waitlist. The school’s enrollment was capped at 297 by the Maine Charter School Commission this year, but the principal hopes to be able to enroll more than that next year.