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Virtual Charter School Enrollment Down, Schools Seek Answers

BANGOR, Maine — National research shows online charter schools across the nation have struggled with withdrawls in their first years due, in part, to the challenges of keeping kids engaged when face-to-face interaction between students and teachers is limited.

Maine's second virtual charter school has seen a roughly 25 percent drop in its enrollment.

Officials with Maine Virtual's curriculum provider have been working with the school to figure out why students are leaving and how to better support them.

One of the jobs of the Maine Charter School Commission is to monitor the progress of the schools it authorizes. Maine Virtual Academy's 90-day review took place on December 2nd. The follow-up report, written by a team from the commission, begins by noting the steep learning curve faced by the school during its first three months. "As of the review date," the report goes on to say, "the student population was 265 students. 76 students had withdrawn since enrolling and this was described as concerning."

"We didn't expect to see as many," says Peter Mills, who heads the Maine Turnpike Authority and is an MVA board member.

Mills says some of the early withdrawls stem from a change in the school's enrollment policy, shortly before the academic year began. Initially, MVA administrators, says Mills, were requiring parents to meet with them, before kids could be officially enrolled at school.

"It's a challenging environment," Mills says. "And it doesn't require parental or adult involvement. This is particularly important for the junior high — the 7th and 8th graders."

Students enrolling at the school, Mills notes, were signing up for a whole new educational experience. No more school bus rides, classrooms and classmates.

Those familiar educational touchstones jettisoned in favor of a short walk from the bedroom or kitchen to the virtual learning station — a computer, provided by MVA's curriculum provider K-12, loaded with an interactive program called The Online School. Mills says that MVA wanted to make sure that parents knew what they and their kids were getting into.

"The commission told us, Look, no, you've got to take all comers and you're a public school and if they sign up, and want to enroll, you need to take them," says Mills. "So we did what we were told. We accelerated the enrollment process and took these kids in.""

Mills says some of the 76 kids who withdrew had second thoughts about MVA almost immediately after enrolling and never actually engaged with the online program. Others, the virtual truants, signed up, engaged for a while, then started logging in less and less, before finally disappearing.

Shelley Reed says she wasn't surprised to see this happen. Reed, the current chair of the Maine Charter School Commission, used to oversee truancy, dropout and alternative education programs at the Maine Department of Education.

"For any child that has not had a whole lot of success in the brick and mortar, traditional school program, a lot of families say lets try this and what's the next thing we can try?" says Reed.

Some of these kids may have special needs. Or they may have had disciplinary problems in their old schools. Others may be lacking a parent or guardian who values education and is capable of — and willing to — take part in their child's online education.

One thing is clear: parents or guardians who are able to engage play a huge role in whether virtual charter schools succeed. Brian Gill, and his colleagues at Mathematica Policy Research, set out to get a better understanding of how online charter schools operate

"We surveyed principals of online charter schools across the country. We tried to get the principals of every online charter school in the country," Gill says. "We didn't quite get all of them, but we go three quarters of them."

And Gill says when asked to identify the biggest challenges, the issue of student engagement came up three times as often as anything else. Part of the reason, says Gill, is that online schools do attract a certain subset of kids who have had trouble engaging in traditional schools.

But Gill says the research also found that online schools aren't set up to deal with the engagement challenge very well. For example, typical students at virtual charter school get only three to six hours of live instructional time per week.

"The typical online charter student is getting about as much live instructional interaction with a teacher in a week as a student in a conventional school would get in a day," says Gill. "And if keeping students engaged is your biggest challenge, then it's hard to see how that's a good idea."

A spokesperson for K-12, Maine Virtual Academy's curriculum provider, says additional supports have been put into place to make sure the school's remaining students stay engaged. Teachers are reaching out to students and families regularly to see how things are going. The school has a guidance counselor who is available too, And there's a family and student support liaison, who contacts families, at a teacher's suggestion, when a student begins to struggle academically or becomes disengaged.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to K-12 as Maine Virtual Academy's parent company. It is their curriculum provider.