AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s newest virtual charter school is struggling to keep students in its debut year, with a quarter of those enrolled withdrawing since online classes started in September 2015.
As of early December, 76 students in the original group of 297 had withdrawn from Augusta-based Maine Virtual Academy, according to a report from three members of the Maine Charter School Commission, who visited the school as part of its 90-day evaluation process. Members of the state commission are charged with overseeing the state’s fledgling charter schools.
The school’s headcount as of the December visit was 265, so some new students have joined to replace those who left. Maine Virtual Academy serves students in grades seven through 12, but it is mostly made up of high schoolers.
Beth Lorigan, the school’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday afternoon that the high withdrawal rate stems largely from the fact that students and parents don’t have an accurate understanding of what they’re getting into when they sign up for virtual school.
She said some students believe the workload will be lighter, or just like the idea of not having to physically go to school. Maine charter schools, virtual ones included, are required by law to accept any student who applies, up to their enrollment cap, and can’t pick-and-choose students.
Once students start classes, they realize that the workload is similar to traditional schools, just more flexible.
Some of the 76 students who withdrew didn’t tell school officials they would be attending elsewhere, they just never logged on or did any work. Teachers can track when students aren’t logging in or are missing work.
Truancy is an issue officials at both virtual charter schools in Maine said they struggled with early on. The other school, Maine Connections Academy based in South Portland, took in its first students during the 2014-15 school year.
“The reality is, you still have to sit down every day and do the work,” Lorigan said.
Other students who transfer from a traditional public school find they miss that atmosphere, especially their friends and other people they used to interact with on a daily basis.
Virtual charters, much like bricks-and-mortar charters, are public and accept students from across the state. The costs of educating those students are paid by the state. Students use home computers to listen to lessons, do homework and take their tests.
Advocates of virtual schools say they provide flexibility to students who may have struggled in a classroom setting. Some students might use it to escape bullying, others because of medical or emotional issues that make it difficult to physically get up and go to school. Others might be passionate athletes or musicians who want school to be flexible so they can devote time to practice and performance.
Students need to either be self-motivated and buckle down to do the school work on their own, or they have someone at home who is able to ensure they’re keeping up and remaining engaged, Lorigan said.
Maine Virtual Academy has a waiting list of about 60 prospective students, and it expects to admit as many as it takes to reach capacity of 300 students by the next semester, which starts in February.
The school says it will work with parents and students to ensure they have a clear, accurate picture of what they’re getting into and what is expected of them, Lorigan said.
Maine Virtual Academy contracts with Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest provider of online education resources in the country.
“It was noted that the school’s experiences with student withdrawal and truancy require greater engagement with parents and students prior to student enrollment,” the commission wrote. “K12 has provided the school with a family support liaison at no cost whose responsibility is to support the students and family.”
After its first 90 days, the other virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, reported a withdrawal rate of about 11 percent. It has dropped to 7 percent in the first 90 days of this school year, according to the school.
On Wednesday, Maine Connections Academy asked that the commission allow it to increase its student capacity for the 2016-17 school year from its limit of 390 to 540. The school, which has an enrollment of 370, says it consistently has 100-150 prospective Maine students on a waitlist.
The commission will review the request and make a decision at a future meeting.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.