Portland Press Herald
By Noel K. Gallahger
The ability to tailor classwork around competing demands and other needs gives some young people – and teachers – a viable alternative when traditional education proves an imperfect fit.
A typical school day for Maggie Mader looks a little different from the kind most people picture.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Maggie, a 16-year-old competitive horseback rider, gets ready for her hourlong biology class. But her classroom is her pink bedroom, where the walls are decorated with trophy ribbons and a shelf over her desk is lined with textbooks and notepads. Pulling on a headset, Maggie boots up her school-issued desktop computer and logs in to Roger Young’s biology class.
While most students would then go on to other classes in other subjects, perhaps hit the cafeteria for lunch or participate in an after-school activity, Maggie is headed for the stables, where she keeps her two horses, for a four-hour workout there.
Maggie is a sophomore at Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, which opened in September after a two-year struggle to meet state charter commission requirements. Today the school enrolls 300 students in grades 7-12 from around the state.
Supporters say virtual schools, in which students receive lessons at home by computer, learning on their own schedules, are good for those who may find traditional schools an imperfect fit, from top athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied.
There are some, however, who criticize virtual schools for taking money away from local school systems, and question the quality of the education and the fact that local boards of virtual charter schools outsource much of their management to out-of-state for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.
Maine Connections Academy received approval to open only after significantly changing its business plan so that its Maine-based board would hire the teachers and administrators directly.
Maine Connections Academy Principal Karl Francis said a virtual school is second nature to young people, who are savvy about using technology in the classroom.
“It’s the nature of their generation, and it’s where education is heading,” Francis said.
For Maggie Mader, online learning allows her to juggle school and a two- to four-hour daily workout with her two horses – as well as giving her time to travel to horse shows.
She still spends five to six hours a day on schoolwork, but working online means her school day isn’t confined to the hours between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
“I can drive to the barn in the morning and do my schoolwork in the afternoon. I just have to get it done,” said Mader, who is taking honors U.S. history, honors biology, honors English, algebra II, Spanish II and physical education.
She left the Scarborough school system after sixth grade because of her growing commitment to riding.
“We didn’t pull Maggie because we hated it. We just couldn’t do it all,” said her mother, Kim Mader, who homeschooled Maggie for three years. Her two older children are both in college but went to Scarborough public schools.
Maggie competes year-round in show jumping and equitation. With shows that usually run for a week, and the logistics of towing the horses to shows and back home, a Monday-through-Friday school schedule is almost impossible to maintain.
A NEW TYPE OF SCHOOL
The value of virtual learning, Francis said, is adapting the curriculum to individual students, instead of having teachers spend time on lesson planning, monitoring the schoolyard or other outside-the-classroom tasks that they would have to do at a traditional school.
Each student receives a personal learning plan, and the school mails students a desktop computer, schoolbooks, and class supplies, such as test tubes and petri dishes for science classes – the entire set-up for a classroom at home.
Students check in every day to get weekly plans and lessons in each course, each noted in bold until the student completes the assignment, and an estimate of how long each lesson should take.
Students spend most of their school time alone, or with a learning coach – usually a parent – and set their own hours for lessons, studying, projects and tests.
Each course meets for a “live lesson” for one hour each week, when the teacher and all the students in the class meet in an online group chat, similar to a Skype session. The students see their teacher via webcam or they walk through a lesson onscreen while the teacher lectures.
For a typical student, classwork and homework take about eight hours a day, Francis said.
In some ways, the school mirrors a traditional school, Francis said. The students are grouped by grade and move through the lessons at a certain pace so they graduate with their counterparts at the end of the second semester. They must take a full load of classes and state-mandated standardized tests at certain times of the year, and must meet state graduation standards.
Students have some flexibility: They don’t have to all take tests on the same day, and they have access to archived lessons or supplementary videos illustrating specific concepts online.
That individual format also lets teachers connect better with each student, said Young, Maggie’s biology teacher, who has been teaching in Maine high schools for more than 30 years, most recently at Windham High School.
Classes at traditional schools adhere to a strict timetable, forcing teachers and students to cram any one-on-one interaction into the 90 seconds between classes, he said.
“Now, when I call them, they’re not in a rush. Conversations tend to be richer,” said Young, who holds a master’s degree, as do six of the eight teachers at the school.
He also took the job because he was drawn to the idea of participating in a new, emerging education model.
“I was intrigued by this process,” Young said.
More personal time
That flexibility was what drew sophomore Leela Stockley, who lives in Lincoln and is a straight-A student taking honors English, honors algebra II, biology, world history, French II and physical education.
“I don’t have a lot of downtime,” said Leela, who said she wanted more personal time. “I have so much going on because I can!”
In addition to daily running, she plays trombone with the Bangor Symphony Youth Orchestra and takes quilting classes with her mother and grandmother. She helps her mother coach the running program at the Lincoln Recreation Department, competes in running events, and last summer served as a high jump official at the state USA Track and Field meet.
She said she didn’t fit in at her old school, where eighth-grade cliques distracted her from schoolwork and eventually isolated her, she said.
“Everyone was trying to be popular, and that wasn’t really me,” she said. “By the end of the year, I didn’t talk to anyone.”
Her pace of work caused problems at her old school, especially in labs and group settings where she had to work with other students.
“I’m a bossy person,” she said. “We’d have to work together and we could never agree, or we’d get kids who thought it was dumb and weren’t trying. Then your grade goes down because of them. It’s really frustrating and really discouraging.”
She still weighs in a lot during the live online lessons, she said.
“It’s nice to be in a community where everyone is trying and everyone wants to be there,” she said, adding that she’s made friends with some of the other students and chats with them online regularly.
Leela usually does her work at home, but uses the library because it’s convenient and cuts down the cost of her family’s home data plan. The school provides a $150-a-year stipend to families to offset costs, but because her home is remote, she sometimes has Internet connection issues.
Leela said she likes Connections because of the variety of electives. Life in Lincoln, population 5,000, can be limiting, she said.
“If you live in Lincoln up until the time you’re 18, people have this preconceived idea that everything should be the same,” she said.
Criticism of business model
Maine Connections Academy gets its educational services from Maryland-based Connections Academy, which is owned by Pearson PLC in London, a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and publishes textbooks.
The Maine Charter School Commission approved Maine Connections Academy only after it significantly changed its initial business plan, in which the local Maine-based school board would have hired Connections Academy to essentially run the school, doing everything from hiring all the teachers and administrators to running the business end for the board.
The commission created new rules for virtual charter schools to force applicants to create schools where the local board and school administrators have direct responsibility and power.
Now, Maine Connections Academy’s board and school hire the staff and teachers directly. Teachers work in one office together. Rather than exclusive agreements with the national education services provider, Maine virtual school applicants must include language in their contracts allowing them to use other providers.
A second virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy, is poised to open next fall, with a business model that resembles Maine Connections Academy, except in one area: It will use a different vendor, K12 Inc., for educational services.
Maine Virtual Academy’s board is now negotiating with the Maine Charter School Commission, which tentatively approved the school in November. At the time, commission Chairwoman Shelley Reed voted against the school, saying she still had concerns about whether K12 is a good fit for Maine. Reed said she didn’t have confidence in K12’s record of academic achievement, and noted that only about one-third of K12 schools nationally made adequate yearly progress in 2011-12 under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections Education showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies had recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.
At Maine Connections Academy, even enrolling takes place online, and students and parents are interviewed on the phone by Connections Academy staff in Maryland.
Because charter schools are considered public, there is no out-of-pocket cost to students. Maine Connections Academy has an annual budget of about $2 million, half of which is paid to Connections Academy.
The national company provides a comprehensive array of online tools for students, administrators and teachers, including lesson planning and class lectures, daily student planners and checklists, an intranet for school announcements and questionnaires for students to identify their “learning style.” The system, known as Connexus, is automated to flag issues for students and staff, and can be used to generate reports, from schoolwide performance to individual student issues.
Maine Connections teachers have rules they must follow as well: They must teach at the school’s South Portland location in a business park near the Maine Mall during normal business hours, attend staff meetings and take ongoing professional development training.
But the similarity to the traditional teaching setting largely ends there. Connections teachers work out of cubicles, like a typical business office. Each sets his own schedule, which includes live video lessons with students, time to grade quizzes and papers, reviews of class and student performance, and phone conferences with students to review their work or go over certain material. The teachers also don’t spend much time preparing the lesson: The Connections software sets that up.
“It’s the hardest part of the job, time management,” said Francis. “Our teachers have to be more deliberate in establishing relationships with the students.”
A different teaching model
The online tracking data gives the teachers a look into every aspect of their students’ activity, from how long they were logged in to quiz scores.
Math teacher Hilary Chase, who also oversees physical education and health classes, says she has 109 direct students at the school. According to Francis, the student-to-teacher ratio at the school is 34-to-1, with teachers interacting with about 120 to 150 students total, in several classes.
Chase has a color-coded calendar that tracks everything from the live lessons to student work review time. The computer program can automatically notify teachers when a student’s performance or participation is lagging, and Chase said she schedules phone conferences with students as needed.
If several students are struggling with the same problem, she sets up smaller groups online to go over the material.
“It’s a lot different than I expected,” said Chase, who taught high school math for 12 years in South Portland, Freeport and Scarborough. “It’s such a different philosophy.”
“If they’re struggling, they can stop and call me,” she said.
“It’s built with some flexibility and that makes it a lot easier,” she said. “Being able to take a day off – that’s really powerful.”
The live video lessons can feel like a traditional classroom, but with a twist:
“OK, raise your hands,” says middle school social studies teacher Andres Martinez during a recent lesson, watching his screen light up as students with questions push a button that lets him know they want to be called on. “Rose, you have a question for me?” Martinez says, listening to her question on his headset. The other students can hear the exchange.
The instructors have voice controls to limit the flow of conversation, or they can let the whole group talk at once.
During the weekly video chat, students can type messages to one another in a chat room screen that is visible to everyone. While it’s used for student feedback during the lesson, instructors can close the chat room if it’s a distraction or goes off-topic.
The Maine-based teachers cover core courses, but students can also take electives, such as foreign languages and career training courses, that are taught by Connections Academy teachers located out of state. Francis said he hopes to eventually hire Maine language teachers and other specialists.
Francis said school officials work hard to establish a sense of camaraderie among students. In addition to an event to launch the school year and allow students to meet one another in person, there is a group graduation ceremony and students are trying to organize their own prom.
During the school year, there are group field trips, such as one that recently took place to the University of Maine at Presque Isle to discuss invasive plants and to tour the Northern Maine Museum of Science.
In Standish, sophomore Emily Healy enrolled in Connections Academy because of chronic health issues related to her dwarfism, and the bullying she endured in public school for years. She was homeschooled last year by her mother.
Taking classes online means she can attend to physical needs – lying down to rest her back instead of sitting up in a classroom – and still focus on schoolwork. Her low grades have picked up since the fall.
“It feels simple to get straight A’s,” said Emily, who is enrolled in algebra, biology, world history, English, sign language and health, fitness and nutrition. The sign language and health and fitness courses are taught by remote, out-of-state teachers in Oregon and Arizona.
At her old school, her grades suffered because she was too distracted to pay attention to schoolwork, she said.
“I’d be in class and think I have to get to my locker and I’d be worried about that. I’d be depressed.”
Now, in a typical day, she works at her own pace and takes breaks when she needs them. She doesn’t feel the pressure to guess at answers the way she once did. With online learning, she can rewatch a lecture or do more research before taking a test or quiz.
“I used to struggle at math,” Emily said. “But I’ve found out I’m good at algebra.”
Emily’s mother, Kristy Healy, said the change in her daughter has been remarkable.
“I think she’s a totally different kid,” Healy said. “Now she’s more focused on schoolwork and not worried about what so-and-so said or who she’s going to sit next to at lunch.”
The good grades are a bonus.
“I always knew she was smart,” Healy said. “This shows it.”