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Portland Public Schools Planning Online Program

Tom Porter
The exterior of Portland High School in December 2012.

The Portland Public School Department plans to launch an online program this year. The district is trying to get a slice of the virtual school pie as it faces competition for students — and funding. But some educators remain skeptical of yet another online option. Portland officials say it's an important — and innovative — option for students.

The first day of school is a busy one for Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk. He rides his bike to district schools to personally welcome students back.

"I'm riding my bike as I talk here, which is probably not a good thing, but I'm OK," Caulk says.

Caulk is enthusiastic about what Portland schools have to offer, and he wants parents and kids to feel the same. But last year, nine students left the district for charter schools. This year, that number more than tripled to 31 students. It may seem like a drop in the bucket for a district with about 7,000 students, but Caulk says it's a signal that Portland schools needs to evolve.

Portland schools need to "start to think differently and fill that space, and offer a program that may meet the needs of students and families in our district," Caulk says. "And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to be innovative."

So, starting this fall, Portland will offer an online program to students in grades 7-12. Caulk says students can choose to fully immerse in the program or mix and match with brick-and-mortar classes. The online classes will be offered by London-based Pearson — the same company that's offering classes for the tuition-free state virtual charter school Maine Connections Academy. Caulk wants to steer potential Connections Academy students in Portland back to their own district, not only with an online option but with everything else the public schools offer, including extracurricular activities and field trips.

"As well as any counseling services for high school students that are looking at college and career, experiencing our job shadowing experiences that we have, so we think it's the human touch," he says.

And even the principal of Maine Connections Academy seems to be on board with the Portland initiative.

"Well, I think it is a good idea," says Karl Francis. He says the state virtual school chose Pearson because it's a good product, and so, he reasons, why shouldn't Portland?

"I think it's all about what's best for kids and providing options for kids," Francis says. "I think different schools offer different programs and different options for students and I wish them success."

But Lois Kilby-Chesley of the Maine Education Association is skeptical of online programs, which she says can be isolating for students.

"Having kids be in a public school and working on a virtual program sort of defeats the purpose of being in a public school, because what you've got is you've got kids who are not having one-to-one contact with certified teachers all day long," Kilby-Chesley says.

But she says she understands why Portland is pursuing its own online program. She says every would-be charter school or home-school student that leaves the district means a loss in state funding. John Watson of Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, which tracks online learning trends, says pretty much every school district in the country offers some sort of online learning option.

"Digital content in schools allows schools to take different approaches," Watson says.

Relatively few — probably no more than 10 percent — are offering a comprehensive program like Portland's. But Watson says schools need to be flexible, as the traditional model of one teacher lecturing to a class is becoming outdated.

"It is a fact that students are looking for different ways to access courses in schools," he says.

Caulk calls Portland's online program with Pearson a short-term, turn-key solution. Long-term, he wants to localize the program.

"To use our own content, our own program, deliver our own content to our students," Caulk says. "With our teachers."

Caulk says he plans a soft roll-out this fall. The Portland School Board will consider Portland's online program Tuesday night.

In the interest of disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of MPBN's news staff.