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Online school adds new twists to public education in Maine

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Online school adds new twists to public education in Maine

SOUTH PORTLAND — Virtual public education is coming to Maine.

Maine Connections Academy, the state's first online public school, will begin its first year just after Labor Day. It is already generating questions about how it all works and whether it offers an effective model for educating young people.

The school, open to students in grades 7 to 12, is run by Connections Education, a for-profit corporation based in Baltimore, with public charter schools in over 20 states. Connections was created in 2001; in 2011, it was acquired by the multi-billion dollar British education company Pearson PLC.

Connections Education supplies its schools with a curriculum that aligns with Common Core state standards. Students can log on to take lessons and perform coursework at any time. Each core course offers one live lesson per week, during which teachers and students can interact via webcam, but even those classes are archived online and don't require real-time attendance.

"It's an individual approach to education," said Karl Francis, who served as a counselor in the Westbrook School Department for the past nine years and was hired last month as Maine Connections Academy's principal. "It's for the non-traditional students who are looking for a non-traditional education."

In recruitment materials, Connections Education highlights the flexibility its schools offer, appealing to kids who have dedicated themselves to sports or the arts. At a recent information session, hosted at the Howard Johnson hotel in Portland, many of the attendees were parents of special education and home-schooled students who were looking for another option.

Sarah McCann, of the Gray-New Gloucester area, said she was intrigued by the school. She said she likes that it plans to hire a special ed director, and that Francis has a counseling background.

McCann said she has home-schooled her son, Nick, for seven years, but Nick has expressed interest in attending his local high school, and she believes a year of virtual school could help him transition to a public school curriculum.

"If he's talking about going to a (traditional) public school, this sounds like a good step on getting him more in line with what the state wants him to know," McCann said. "He knows more about the Renaissance than American history right now because we just haven't gotten there yet."

Other parents may worry about virtual schooling stunting kids' social growth. Students will take their classes online, but their teachers will report to a facility on John Roberts Road in South Portland. And while there are plans to host events at the South Portland location, and offer field trips, that doesn't do much good for students who live in other parts of the state.

Francis said there could be a satellite facility in Bangor in future years, but there are no concrete plans.

Julie Hannon, who sits on Maine Connections Academy's five-member, volunteer board, said concerns about socialization and virtual schooling are overblown.

"There are kids that have horrendous socialization experiences in brick-and-mortar schools," said Hannon, a former school technology integration specialist from Scarborough. "They can still make friends in their neighborhood, playing on the local hockey team or attending the local dance academy."

Some experts are skeptical of the virtual public school movement.

Education consultant and blogger Will Richardson in 2011 wrote that virtual schools "minimize the role of the teacher" and undercut teachers' unions. (Maine Connections Academy plans to hire eight teachers for an estimated 250 students.) Moreover, Richardson wrote, these schools function largely to save the state money and increase profits for their corporate backers.

A 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that the on-time graduation rate for students enrolled in school through K12 Inc., another company that develops online public school curricula, was below 50 percent.

Hannon insists that while this education isn't for everyone, there is a place for it.

"The best thing about this school is it offers an option for parents and students that they don't otherwise have," Hannon said. "The brick and mortar is not the only way to educate a child, and there are many students who are not successful in that environment. This is another environment that allows them to pursue success. Is every student going to be successful? No. But a lot of them will."

After the recent info session, Gorham residents Steve and Monique Meyers discussed Maine Connections Academy with cautious optimism. One of their sons performs well academically, but struggles with social situations and unstructured school settings, like the hallway and the cafeteria. They said Maine Connections Academy could be a good alternative, although there are a lot of unknowns.

"The state is taking the right approach, going very slow," Steve Meyers said. "I think this is a good, cautious first step. When you're the first ones in the state to do this, there's a leap of faith. For any parent, it's going to be very nerve-racking."

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.