Education officials and members of the public will get opportunities this week to learn more about three proposed charter schools – two virtual schools and one STEM-focused high school affiliated with a Turkish imam – that are hoping to open in Maine this fall.
Officials from Maine Connections Academy, a virtual school, will meet from noon to 3 p.m. Monday with the Maine Charter School Commission at the University of Maine at Augusta, followed by a public hearing from 4 to 7 p.m.
A similar pair of events with the same meeting times will be held at UMaine Augusta on Tuesday for the other virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy. And on Friday, the meeting and public hearing for Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School will be held at Central Maine Community College in Auburn.
The commission voted last week to continue discussions with the three schools, and it will take a final vote in March to decide which may open.
Under a 2012 Maine law, up to 10 charter schools can be approved in Maine in the first 10 years, and five have already opened. The schools are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts and their elected boards.
Charters have proven controversial in Maine. They strongly backed by Gov. Paul LePage and conservative groups, and opposed by some legislators, unions and local officials who want to protect funding for traditional public schools.
Virtual charter schools have drawn particular scrutiny in Maine and nationwide.
In Maine, the commission turned down proposals from the two virtual schools in recent years, largely out of concern that the local boards did not have enough independence from “education services providers” – or ESPs – that provide curriculum, and in some cases, the staff.
This year, commission members said they are satisfied that the local boards have sufficient independence, based on their vote last week to continue negotiations. It’s the farthest in the approval process that virtual charter schools have ever progressed in Maine.
The two proposed Maine virtual schools have different models, although both rely on large national companies to provide the curriculum.
Maine Virtual Academy has contracted the services of K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., the nation’s largest online education company.
The company was investigated by Florida’s education department, which found that K12 had employed teachers in Seminole County schools to teach subjects for which they lacked proper certification. The company also has come under scrutiny in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.
K12 Inc. and Connections Learning of Baltimore, which backs Maine Connections Academy, were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation in 2012 that showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of students’ achievement.
Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online and face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators limited.
MAINE CONNECTIONS ACADEMY
Although it is a virtual school largely conducted online, Maine Connections Academy plans to have two teaching centers where staff and students can meet; one will be in Scarborough and one will be in the Bangor area.
The school plans to open with an initial enrollment of 300 students in grades 7-12 and grow to a maximum enrollment of 750 students.
A key concern for Maine Charter School Commission member Ande Smith, who led the subcommittee reviewing Maine Connections, was that the school would need a very strong day-to-day leader in the chief executive officer position in order to be successful. He also noted that the board intended to monitor the school’s progress based on metrics, but the metrics would be provided by Connections Learning, weakening the group’s ability to objectively oversee the results.
Smith said the group also had questions about how the school would handle special education services, and whether it could attract and retain high-quality teachers at the proposed low-end salaries.
MAINE VIRTUAL ACADEMY
Maine Virtual Academy plans to open with an initial student body of 300 students in grades 7-12. Students attend classes online at the same time as instructors for part of the time, and independently during others.
Maine Virtual Academy differs from Maine Connections in that it does not plan to have “clusters” and school centers, leading to a more decentralized model. John Bird, the commission member who led the subcommittee looking at Maine Virtual Academy, raised that as one area of concern. He also noted that it did not yet have an identified chief executive officer, and that some teachers may come from out of state.
Bird noted that it was more of a “turnkey” operation strongly controlled by K12, which provides the curriculum and teachers in one bundle, answering to a board-hired CEO and head of school.
For Maine Connections, the board will hire teachers as well as administrators, then buy the curriculum and program from Connections, and meld the various pieces.
Smith said he didn’t have a preference for which would work better – one appears to be a more cohesive approach, the other offers more independence and control – but “they’re different and we have to consider it (in) the next step.”
The Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School would open with an initial student body of 180 students, with 60 students each in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. It would eventually grow to serve 360 students in grades 7-12 and draw them from the Lewiston-Auburn area.
The school is affiliated with followers of the Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, and would be part of a global network of more than 800 Gulen-linked schools. The school has a uniform dress code, and a maximum teacher-student ratio of 1:13.
Gulen’s network has been active in Maine, sponsoring trips to Turkey for state legislators, teachers and other community figures, who meet Gulen-linked newspaper editors, politicians and civic leaders. The trips are organized through the Turkish Cultural Center of Maine, which held an awards ceremony in Portland in November honoring LePage.
Jana Lapoint, who chairs the Maine Charter School Commission, led the team that did the initial review of the school, and she told the commission that members closely examined the school’s ties to Gulen, who lives in exile in Connecticut, and were assured it would not be a religious school.
“It definitely is just a straightforward math and science school where they have very high expectations,” said Lapoint. The backers also allayed concerns raised by news reports and critics questioning the schools’ hiring teachers from Turkey and buying some computer services from people affiliated with the parent company, as well as concerns about budget issues at other Gulen schools.
When asked about hiring teachers, school officials said they intended to hire locally, and would hire from overseas only if they could not find qualified teachers in Maine, Lapoint said.
Some areas of concern, she said, were that the school has no facility at this time, but plans to work with a company to create a school and lease it on a five-year basis. It also doesn’t have a fundraising plan, although the parent company has promised to provide a $250,000 line of credit if needed.
She also noted that there was not a food service plan, although the proposal says the school would provide breakfast and an afternoon snack.
Commission member Laurie Pendleton said she was encouraged by the fact the parent company has created so many of these schools in the United States.
“It is a high-quality school,” said Pendleton. “They’ve already replicated in Massachusetts, so for me that was evidence they can do it again.”
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6398 or at: