Maine's Virtual Charter Schools Begin to Smooth Out Some of the Bumps in Year Two

Oct 19, 2016

Across the state, about 800 middle and high school students wake up every morning, log on to their computers, and take all of their classes completely online. They’re enrolled in to Maine’s two virtual charter schools. This year, that same, online approach is also being used by brick-and-mortar schools, as well. The track record for online and blended learning is mixed nationally. The question now is if Maine’s schools can buck the trend.

For Tiffany Jones, teaching English only requires a computer and an internet connection.

“Hi guys, can you hear me?” Jones says as she clicks to open a webpage. “Can you give me a green check if you can hear me?”

Jones teaches at the Maine Virtual Academy, the state’s second virtual charter school. From her cubicle at the school’s headquarters in Augusta, Jones speaks into a little microphone on her computer. Students answer on her screen with text, emojis or little green check marks. Jones says she’s worked in brick-and-mortar school districts from Lewiston to Durham. But despite being physically apart from her students, she says she’s never felt as strongly connected with kids before. For her, it comes down to communication.

“I call them all the time,” she says. “Texting my students. I’m watching my son’s soccer game, at the field, and Susie’s texting me about a paper. And I’m like, Oh, write this sentence instead.”

When students are struggling, Jones says now she has the time to reach out. Schedule a meeting or talk through a problem with the family.

“So far today, it’s like 10:30 in the morning, I’ve talked to like four different parents on the phone!” she says. “Johnny hasn’t got this Class Connect session. Or Susie’s wondering about this assignment. It’s more of a team effort with the family. And that’s been really cool. It makes the learning more strong as well.

This is year two for Maine Virtual Academy. It was the second virtual school approved by the Maine Charter School Commission, after Maine Connections Academy. Together, the schools enroll about 800 students. And like a lot of charters, both are particularly alluring for kids who fall outside the norm, for whatever reason. Students with jobs. Musicians. Or many who simply struggled to fit in at their old school. Jones says schools like hers can make those students feel comfortable and connected. But that promise sometimes doesn’t lead to performance.

“I guess the two biggest worries are the fact that student performance in these programs, and student retention, for that matter, tend to be abysmal,” says Michael Barbour, who studies virtual charter schools at Touro University California. “That’s probably the nicest descriptor I can come up with for these.”

Barbour and other experts say lower test scores shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, because of the demographics these schools tend to serve. But he says the numbers nationally are jarring. A 2016 report from the National Education Policy Center outlines the problem. It says that less than half of virtual charter schools “were judged academically acceptable.”

Maine’s virtual schools, meanwhile, have had their own problems. In its first year, the Maine Virtual Academy saw more than a quarter of its students leave the school over its first 90 days. In addition, last year both virtual schools had some of the lowest participation rates on state standardized tests. That makes it tough to properly evaluate student progress. Maine Virtual Academy Head of School Melinda Browne says that among many changes instituted this year, are the creation of a more consistent system of academic plans schoolwide, and the offering of more test sites.

“Our hope for this year is we offer a lot more test centers across the state,” Browne says. And there will be a [Maine Virtual Academy] teacher at every test site.”

The academics, meanwhile, have been mixed. Officials are encouraged by the Maine Connections Academy. It met most of the goals outlined by the charter commission over the past two years. And experts say its contracted provider, Connections Education, has seen reasonable success nationwide. However, the Maine Virtual Academy, which contracts with provider K12 Inc., hasn’t seen the same results in its first year. According to its annual monitoring report, less than half the school’s students met their projected reading growth on the NWEA standardized test, and less than a quarter met that growth in math. The school says it’s created new programs to support students, particularly in the summer. And Mike Wilhelm with the Maine Charter School Commission says those numbers aren’t concerning yet and should be looked at as a baseline for future growth, and the commission will keep monitoring the school.

Students at Snow Pond Arts Academy spend the morning studying theater, music and dance before using an online curriculum in the afternoon.
Credit Snow Pond Arts Academy

But for a glimpse at the next step in virtual learning — referred to as “blended learning” — in Maine, you can head to a school along the shores of Messalonskee Lake: the Snow Pond Arts Academy. The classes often look like a scene from “Dirty Dancing.” The school was designed as a way to offer any kid in Maine a chance at a quality arts education, particularly in the face of cuts to many local programs. Every morning, students spend three hours learning music, theater and dance.

The school’s strength, says principal David Holinger, comes in classes like this one, called “From Book to Stage,” where student groups act as theater companies and design their own versions of classic stories. One group is adapting “Humpty Dumpty” as a Renaissance period piece aimed at kids.

“So we found out Humpty Dumpty was written right in the middle of the French Revolution,” says student Sararose Willey. “So that was a big inspiration.”

“Yeah, we pulled from different times,” explains another student, Maya Veilleux. “We pulled things from the Renaissance, the French Revolution, It’s a mix of a bunch of different time periods.”

Principal David Holinger says the goal is integrating arts to make subjects like history more engaging.

“So there’s a lot of those connections that we can build into the academic component of the school, as well,” he says.

In the afternoon, students pull away from the stage and head to their computers. They go to more “traditional” classes — science, math, English. The school uses the educational provider K12 Inc. to provide the curriculum, with teachers meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups. Academic Department Head Koren Coughlin says this lets her be more creative with how she delivers ideas to her students.

“The idea is that as a teacher, I don’t need to do as much pre-planning. The work is done, content is available,” she says. “Then I can be innovative and bridge from the core academics to the special interests on the arts side of things. Music interests, dance interests, theater interests.

Students at Snow Pond seem to love the arts curriculum. But their response to online learning is mixed. Some enjoy the flexibility. But others, like freshman Nevaeh Schuchardt, say the transition has been hard.

“I had my moments where I thought I was going to leave because of K12,” says Schuchardt. “But I was like, the arts, that’s the path to the future! So I’m sticking through it.”

When Schuchardt is asked if she feels like she’s learning as much as she was at her own school, she answers, “No. Not really.”

Michael Barbour, the Touro University California professor, says these blended programs don’t have a track record of success. But he’s intrigued by Snow Pond because it’s aiming its classes and content at a specific kind of student, with a passion for the arts.

“I think that’s probably the best way to start,” Barbour says.

Even with these questions about both virtual and blended learning, state officials say they’re nonetheless excited about the schools’ potential as a new educational option for students who are struggling in traditional classrooms.