South Portland-based virtual charter school grows

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The state’s first virtual public charter school, Maine Connections Academy, enter its second year Aug. 31 with a larger teaching staff and maximum student capacity.

Principal Karl Francis, of Cape Elizabeth, said the staff has five new members (for 17 total) and the total student body, in grades seven through 12, has 100 new students enrolled (nearly 370 total), with 85 wait-listed.

“That shows some health and substantial growth,” Francis said. 

New teaching positions include a manager of school counseling and a special education coordinator. New students will join the virtual academy this year from across the state – Kittery to Fort Kent to Presque Isle – but the biggest concentration comes from south of Bangor, Francis said. 

In addition to increased numbers, MCA will also offer students the opportunity for dual enrollment at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Francis said.

“We’re continuing to look for those opportunities for partnerships throughout the state,” he said. 

The virtual public school allows students to work from home and on their own schedule, although Francis said traditional public schools aren’t an inferior alternative.

“I feel very strongly about our brick-and-mortar schools; they’re top-notch in traditional public settings,” he said. “But for some students, it just doesn’t work. They needed a non-traditional option.” 

For rising junior Maggie Mader, of Scarborough, the traditional learning schedule didn’t align with her intensive training schedule.

Mader, 16, competes in horse show jumping across New England. Before she enrolled in MCA last year as a sophomore, Mader was home-schooled by her mother for seventh and eighth grades.

“I’ve been riding since I was 6, (and) the big reason I started home schooling was so I could have time to ride,” Mader said.

When home schooling became too “chaotic” for her mother, who also works, Mader said the option of enrolling in MCA seemed like the perfect fit: a virtual education gives her the flexibility she needs and allows her to “plan it out however it works best for my busy schedule,” she said. 

If anything, Mader said, the autonomy that accompanies a virtual education requires more self-discipline on her part because she must manage her schedule.

“It holds a lot of responsibility on my part; I have to do a lot of time management, but it gives me a lot of freedom to say I’m going to do my work from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then I can do training,” Mader said.

Socialization for Mader comes through involvement in a youth group and with students she knew from Scarborough Middle School. MCA students also have the option to participate in extracurricular public school activities in their home district, with the permission of the respective superintendent, Francis said.

The cost per student to do so is largely fronted by MCA, he said, which provides a “reasonable cost of the share for the individual to participate.”

Eventually, Francis, said, he hopes to grow the size of the student body to kindergarten through 12th grade.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Maine Connections Academy’s home base is at 75 John Roberts Road in South Portland.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.