Maine online charter school backers promise local control, quality

2014-02-05 | Portland Press Herald

Feb. 04--AUGUSTA -- State education officials pressed board members of a proposed virtual charter school Monday on details of their 500-plus-page application, particularly how they will attract and retain dual-certified teachers on a $35,000 salary and retain local control with a large national company providing most education services.

"We understand the buck stops with us," said Amy Volk, president of the board of Maine Connections Academy, which has contracted with Connections Learning of Baltimore for educational services. Volk, a Republican state representative, co-sponsored the bill creating charter schools in Maine.

Volk and other board members answered questions for three hours Monday in an interview with the Maine Charter School Commission at the University of Maine at Augusta. A public hearing drew only three or four speakers, all in support of the school.

On Tuesday, the commission will interview the other virtual charter school applicant, Maine Virtual Academy, from noon to 3 p.m. at UMA, followed by a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m. Maine Virtual Academy has contracted the services of K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation's largest online education company.

A similar pair of events will be held at the same times on Friday at Central Maine Community College in Auburn for the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which is affiliated with a Turkish imam.

K12 Inc. and Connections Learning were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation in 2012 which showed that Maine's digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students' achievement.

K12 in particular has been the subject of many critical reports nationwide. A Florida state investigation found K12 had employed teachers there to teach subjects for which they lacked proper certification. The company also has come under scrutiny in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.

After a federal class-action lawsuit was filed by a shareholder in 2012 on a range of issues, including accusations that K12 boosted enrollment and revenues through "deceptive recruiting" practices, K12 paid a $6.75 million settlement to shareholders.

Commission Executive Director Bob Kautz noted those issues; the school's board members said Connections Learning did not have the same problems.

"We have supported our provider partly because of their stellar reputation," said Maine Connections Academy board member Carol Weston, a former state legislator. "There aren't those negative things with Connections."

Kautz said some virtual charter schools have been accused of having low student performance, high dropout rates and high student-to-teacher ratios.

Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.

Nicholas McGee, treasurer of the Maine Connections Academy board, said members have worked with Connections Learning to make sure the Maine school would not have similar problems. Maine Connections Academy plans to have two teaching centers, in Scarborough and Bangor, where staff and students can meet.

But after commissioners pressed the board on the low salaries, McGee suggested they could delay opening a Bangor center in order to free up money for higher salaries, if needed.

The school plans to open with an initial enrollment of 300 students in grades 7-12 and grow to a maximum enrollment of 750 students.

Instead of Connections Learning employing all the workers, the Maine Connections Academy board will hire the top school official -- the principal or chief executive officer -- who will run the school on a day-to-day basis. But the commission was told Monday that Connections Learning staff would do the initial review of all resumes -- "because we need to be able to work with this person," said Connections Learning Senior Vice President Pat Laystrom -- and then give the board its top choices for the board to make the final pick.

The principal, in turn, would hire the seven Maine Connections Academy teachers who would teach the core academic classes and be expected to live in Maine. Additional classes, such as languages or art, would be taught by Connections Learning teachers who might provide their services from remote locations.

"Do I expect it to be a bumpy road? Absolutely," McGee told the commission. "But evaluate the people before you. Do you think we're going to walk away? This is on us. . . . We know we're going to be the most hated people in Maine if we're approved. I've accepted it."

The commission turned down proposals from the two virtual schools in recent years, largely out of concern about the influence of the national companies, both of which came to Maine and recruited the original board members for the Maine schools.

Since then, several key changes have been made to the process, according to Commission Chairwoman Jana Lapoint. The commission instituted a more rigorous selection and oversight process, and last year created a specific request for proposals for charter schools to obtain additional information.

Among the expectations in Maine is that the local board of a virtual charter school hire the school administrators, that teachers have weekly face-to-face meetings with all students, that the school not have "rolling admissions" with students coming and going all year, and that the local board have strong oversight of the whole operation instead of just signing off on whatever the national company recommends.

"Where things have gone wrong, there was no accountability," Lapoint said. "We are on top of them all the time and the contract is very clear what they have to do."

Volk agreed that the changes made a big difference in how her board negotiated a contract with Connections Learning.

"We've listened to the commission and we heard them say they didn't want cheerleaders (on the board). We took that very seriously," she said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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