AUGUSTA – Demand for a virtual charter school emerged as a major theme at a public input session with the State Charter School Commission last week.

The commission, which will be able to authorize 10 charter schools in the next decade, hosted sessions around the state to gather feedback about regional gaps in education programs that charter schools potentially could fill.

Commissioners will consider that input as they review applications from groups that want to start charter schools.

About 20 people attended the daytime input session in Augusta, which followed others in Portland and Bangor. Two more are scheduled to take place in Machias and Presque Isle next month.

At the Portland session, according to the Maine Department of Education, people asked for schools offering learning that is project-based, proficiency-based, hands-on or interdisciplinary; focused on music and mathematics, music and language or science, technology, engineering and mathematics; or available online.

The request for a virtual charter school was the most common refrain at the Augusta session, where people in the audience said it would serve the needs of rural communities.

There just aren’t enough options or opportunities available through traditional public schools Down East, Sullivan resident Kristen LaRiviere said.

She said that schools Down East “need resources, and I think virtual schools would allow us resources we don’t have the privilege of attaining.”

The school choice portion of the federal No Child Left Behind law allows students in struggling schools to transfer within a school district; but in many Maine districts, there is only one school at each level, East Millinocket mother Amy Linscott noted.

Linscott, like LaRiviere, is homeschooling her children because of a lack of options.

A virtual charter school also could benefit students in more populated areas of the state, Farmingdale mother Pam Longfellow said.

Longfellow, who has homeschooled her children for several years, doesn’t like the system of proficiency-based education in use at Hall-Dale High School and has enrolled her 10th-grade son in online science courses.

“It’s obviously very expensive, and so an online charter school would be great for us,” she said.

Longfellow and LaRiviere said they hope a virtual charter school would be available to students not only full time but also part time, to complement and supplement a traditional public education.

Bob England, of Waldoboro, said he hopes someone will start a vocational charter school open to middle school students. He said that as assistant principal of Medomak Middle School in Waldoboro, he sees students become disengaged from school before they have access to high school-level career and technical education.

Charter schools are public schools that are freed from many of the requirements placed on traditional schools, which proponents say allows them to innovate and fill gaps in educational offerings.

Critics point to the fact that many charter schools produce poor results and say they divert resources from school districts already facing tight budgets.

The charter school commission’s authorization procedures have been submitted to the secretary of state’s office and will be open for public comment from April 10 to 20.

After that, the commission will make its final decision on the procedures, Chairman James Banks Sr. said. That should enable them to publish a request for proposals by May 1.

Commissioners hope to grant charters to any qualified applicants by July 1, which would leave two months to recruit students, hire teachers and prepare to start classes in September.

Banks said he is aware of only three or four groups that might apply.

“The question is how many are going to be prepared to open in September of this year, as opposed to maybe September of next year,” Banks said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

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