SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s two online charter schools are seeing increased enrollment this academic year.
Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, has swelled to 429 students to start the school’s third year. Based in South Portland, it serves students in seventh through 12th grade scattered in school districts across the state. In its debut, the 2014-15 school year, it attracted 267 students.
“The continued growth of Maine Connections Academy indicates that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education doesn’t work for everyone,” said Maine Connections Academy Principal Doug Bourget. “We have seen so many incredible students thrive as a result of the individualized education they receive through our program. Students have the flexibility to learn at a pace that encourages success, and parents inevitably become more involved with their child’s education.”
Augusta-based Maine Virtual Academy, which started its second school year this week, also has grown thanks to an increase in its state-allowed capacity. Its cap increased from 270 to 360 this year under its contract with the state.
“All projections are that we’ll hit our capacity by the Oct. 1 count date,” Melinda Browne, head of school for Maine Virtual Academy, said Wednesday. The school continues to take inquiries and accept students.
Virtual charter schools are allowed to exceed or fall short of their capacity by up to 10 percent. In other words, both virtual charters are under five-year contracts that cap enrollment at 390 students by their third year, but the charters can admit as many as 429 or as few as 351. However, they also can request permission from the state to increase their cap.
Browne said she believes Maine Virtual Academy will be comfortable with the cap of 390 the school will reach in the 2017-18 school year.
“I think we’ll be quite happy with 390,” she said. “It’s quality over quantity. We’re very happy with our size.”
Last year, during Maine Virtual Academy’s first 90-day review conducted by members of the Maine Charter School Commission, the group charged with oversight of the state’s charter schools, commission members raised concerns about flagging enrollment numbers. The commission learned 76 students out of the original group of 297 had withdrawn from the school.
Those students withdrew for a number of reasons — their family moved, they decided to go to a bricks-and-mortar school and didn’t tell Maine Virtual Academy before the start of the school year, or they had an illness that forced them to change plans.
The school ultimately filled those slots with students who had been on the waiting list.
Virtual charter school officials admit they aren’t suited for every student. Students need to be self-motivated to do the work and listen to lectures, and many need a supportive family member or guardian to ensure they get the work done.
For students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting, the flexible schedule and ability to be taught without actually going to school can provide a better learning opportunity.
In 2015, the state changed the way charter schools are funded. Formerly, local school districts had to write the charter school a check for each student sent from that district who decided to attend the charter.
Now, the state treats charters more like individual school districts, funding the charter schools directly for the costs of educating their students. Both the charters and sending districts have said this is preferable.
Virtual students make up an extremely small portion of Maine’s pupil population. They represent just 800 out of about 84,000 Maine students in seventh through 12th grade, according to the Department of Education.
Browne said Maine Virtual Academy learned a lot in its first year, and it has been working to improve retention and ensure families and students have the support they need.
“We’re constantly reaching out to families and students, trying to know what’s going on on their end,” she said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.