Portland school chief scraps online school plan

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PORTLAND — A virtual school program proposed for the Portland Public Schools has been scrapped.

Superintendent of Schools Emmanuel Caulk in August announced the program, aimed at stemming the flow of students, and tuition, from city schools to the Maine Connections Academy virtual charter school.

But Caulk pulled the plug on the online program on Sept. 5 in the face of opposition from Mayor Michael Brennan, state Education Commission James Rier, and School Board members.

Caulk emailed board members on Thursday, Sept. 4, and said he has “no intent to move forward with (the virtual instruction program) without the board’s support.”

No students had signed up for the Portland program, which would have been for grades 7 through 12. Seven Portland students are enrolled at MCA. Caulk’s email said last year charter schools cost the Portland School District around $8,000 per student.

“Given the recent discussions with (Department of Education) Commissioner Rier … it appears we are less likely to need a short term solution for the immediate financial impact which will give us time to discuss a long-term strategy for the unresolved issue of the continuing loss of students to charter schools,” Caulk said in the email.

Caulk told the School Board on Sept. 3 that he had ordered an online curriculum from Pearson, the same provider used by MCA. He did not provide specifics to questions asked by the board about logistics of the program.

Brennan said his reservations stemmed from the fact Portland would be partnering with a for-profit company to provide funding for teachers and curriculum.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson said “all is on hold at this time, but does not preclude discussion in future regarding online learning.” She said there will be some discussion on this issue at the next School Board meeting on Sept. 16.

Caulk’s note also said he will be working with Brennan and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, “to talk through different legislative options to help lessen the financial impact of charter school funding to school districts.”

Karl Francis, principal at MCA, said he “applauds” Portland for “trying to meet the individual needs of their own students.”

“If we’re all about student choice, if we’re all about what’s best for kids, I applaud Portland for trying to individualize their instruction for their own students,” Francis said.

He added that he doesn’t see a possible Portland virtual school as an adversary.

“I viewed it as an individual school district trying to take care of their own kids,” he said.

Francis said these are “changing times” that are new to everyone, and educators are trying to figure out what their role in the process is to best serve their students.

“I think superintendents across the state are really taking a look at their practice and what they’re offering for kids and the budget implications of students leaving,” Francis said. “I’ve seen this need for a long time. So I’m very happy that MCA was able to open our doors and address those needs for kids. I didn’t take in a negative way. That need is out there.”

He said the two virtual programs “definitely” could have coexisted, since there is a need for this program in more places than just Portland.

“Portland can pull from Portland students, and we would have access to students throughout the state,” Francis said. “Of course, we’d like to have the entire state at Maine Connections Academy, but I think we would have done just fine with Portland having their own and meeting the needs of the Portland students.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.