State’s first virtual charter school is latest addition to changing education landscape

Written by Rep. Amy Volk

The convergence of technology and school choice is opening new doors for Maine’s public school students, presenting them with learning opportunities that never before have been available in this state. What is happening is nothing short of an education revolution, and we are all better off for it.

Last month, Maine Connections Academy began offering classes to public school students in grades 7-12. Based in South Portland, it is the state’s first virtual charter school, allowing students to take classes online regardless of where they live in Maine.

This new learning approach really isn’t that different from advances in other parts of our lives that have been driven by modern communications. We don’t do business, talk on the phone, listen to music, pay our bills or watch TV like we used to. The quality of nearly everything we do has been enhanced by technology, and there’s no reason for public education to be left behind.

Maine Connections Academy is one of Maine’s charter schools, meaning it is a public school. The funding mechanism is based on the charter school funding formula, in which the money from the school district follows the student to his or her school of choice. Unfortunately, the funding system as it stands now makes it very difficult for districts to budget. This is an issue that I look forward to seeing corrected in the next session of the Legislature.

Many questions have been raised about whether Maine Connections Academy is for-profit. It is not.

All Maine public schools have contracts with vendors for services such as curriculum, textbooks, transportation and food. Similarly, Maine Connections Academy contracts with Connections Education for curriculum and other services.

Like brick-and-mortar charter schools, the mission of virtual schools is to provide educational alternatives to those students who are unable to reach their full potential in traditional school settings. Their reasons are varied, but they all stand to benefit from a flexible, individualized approach to learning.

Some students may have anxiety issues, while others have been bullied. Some of them have health issues or disabilities that make the logistics of traveling to and from school difficult. One student I know who falls into this latter category used to doubt whether she would be able to finish high school. Since beginning classes at Maine Connections Academy, she has been getting straight A’s.

Still others are student-athletes whose time-consuming training schedules don’t conform to a typical 8 a.m.-3 p.m. school day.

Maine Connections Academy students have the additional benefit of not being bound by geography. They attend online classes that are taught by certified Maine-based teachers while a parent or other adult learning coach monitors the student’s progress at home.

The learning standards and benchmarks for virtual schools are the same as they are for traditional schools. All students will be required to take the same Maine assessment tests and meet specific criteria before they are allowed to graduate.

Maine Connections Academy is accountable to Maine taxpayers. I serve as president of the Academy’s Governing Board, which operates under the terms of a contract signed with the Maine Charter School Commission. Board members are not compensated for their work. In addition, we are contributing to the Maine economy as a small business with a Maine-based staff of 13, who live and contribute to their own local communities.

I do not have any children attending Maine Connections Academy, nor do I foresee any of them enrolling in the future, yet I have a personal stake in its success. We all do. While there are many disagreements about how our kids should be educated, there is universal agreement that every Maine student should have an equal opportunity and access to a quality education.

Technology has provided us with the resources to allow all Maine kids to reach their full potential. Education alternatives such as the one presented with Maine Connections Academy knock down barriers that for too long held certain students back. We need to embrace this change because these students are Maine’s future.

Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, represents House District 127 and is running for Senate District 30. She is also the president of the Maine Connections Academy Governing Board.