I just read the sample “Day in the Life” of a student at the just-approved Maine Connections Academy and it made me think of a kid who went by the name of Rada.

He was in many of my classes in high school 40-plus years ago and, while he was by no means lacking in intelligence, Rada was … different.

Take the day he showed up with what looked like a detached human arm: a stuffed shirtsleeve with a fake, upraised hand at the end, all connected to a perpendicular handle at the bottom. From then on, Rada proclaimed upon taking his seat, he would no longer raise his hand in class – he’d simply rotate his fake arm upward to signal to the teacher that he had something to say.

“It’s easier that way,” he explained in all seriousness while the teacher shook his head and we classmates sat there bug-eyed with suppressed laughter.

Rada, in case you haven’t already guessed, was a bit of a loner. He was pleasant enough, if not a bit disdainful of fellow students (like me) who saw school as one part learning, one part cultivating friendships that endure to this day. Yet even as he seemed to float atop the same social currents in which the rest of us immersed ourselves, Rada was still there, day in and day out, experiencing life in the tumultuous early 1970s like everyone else.

So, with Rada squarely in mind, back to that “Day in the Life” of a soon-to-be student at Maine Connections Academy:

In the morning …

Learning Coach (in most cases a parent) logs on, reads messages, and reviews lessons.

Student reads and responds to WebMail messages from teacher about progress.

Student completes an Algebra lesson. Learning Coach monitors and facilitates learning as necessary.

Student completes a Language Arts lesson, including reading, writing and discussing the lesson activities and text.

Student completes the lesson and takes a quiz online.

Student goes outside for a half-mile run.

Student makes soup for lunch, as part of the Home Lunch Course …

The afternoon looks much the same: a science lesson, a non-fiction reading selection, a hands-on science experiment outdoors and a rough draft of a science report before the student “heads off for work shift at the local grocery store.”

That’s followed by an art lesson, participation in the Robotics Club, recording of attendance for the day and one last check by the Learning Coach.

My guess is that Rada, given the opportunity, would have jumped at this sort of thing. No rubbing elbows with fellow students who on a daily basis failed to appreciate his genius, no chaotic cafeteria where the Home Lunch Course often boiled over into a food fight, no dealing in any way with all the external stimuli that were an education unto themselves – not in an academic sense, mind you, but in a social one.

Put more simply, a virtual charter school would have provided Rada a place to hide. But would that have been a good thing?

By this time next year, all eyes will be on Maine Connections Academy and its for-profit vendor, Connections Learning of Baltimore, when it comes to academic performance, test scores, teacher qualifications and all the other measures of a quality educational experience.

Still, what about the people part – or in this case, the lack thereof?

Is face-to-face time with one’s peers a portal to a whole other, equally important learning opportunity? Or is it a needless distraction and, in some cases, even an obstacle to a fruitful, happy adolescence?

The Maine Charter School Commission, to its credit, insisted on “weekly live, interactive contact” between students and teachers before approving Maine Connections Academy’s application to launch its school for grades 7-9 this fall.

According to the application, the school will achieve that primarily through LiveLesson, an interactive program trademarked by Learning Connections that sounded great until I watched the online demonstration: “Does anyone have any questions?” asks the thumbnail-size teacher in the upper left corner of the computer screen. “If you have questions, please use your status bar.”

Yes, it’s live. But no, it doesn’t even come close to replicating real human contact.

Maine Connections Academy also came up with a list of 21 real-life field trips that “may” include all kinds of cool places – the Maine State Museum, the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center and the Maine State Aquarium, to name but a few.

One question: If Jack lives in Kittery and Jane lives in Fort Kent and the field trip is in, say, Portland, exactly how will the school go about getting each and every kid here from there? (And while we’re on the subject, does Jane get a day off to compensate for her 11 hours on the road?)

I’m not saying it’s impossible to supplement virtual learning with age-appropriate socialization. Maine’s home-school movement over the years has created a bevy of local and regional support networks to connect like-minded parents and children with one another.

I also concede that for some overachievers – virtual-school proponents like to talk about all those young, aspiring Olympic athletes who need to balance school and training – a home-based, computer-driven school day may well be the key to meshing visions of athletic glory with mastery of the Pythagorean theorem. But for the average kid, who likely spends too much time in front of a computer screen already, a daily curriculum that begins and ends with a mouse click does not a socially adept adolescent make.

And for the struggling kid, particularly one who suffers the agony of bullying, is the cocoon of the home computer truly the best possible outcome? Or is it simply a surrender?

Time will tell whether Maine Connections Academy is a harbinger of our educational future or a haven for parents and kids who, for whatever reason, want off the social, emotional and sometimes painful roller coaster that ferries us from childhood to adult life.

But as I sit here still chuckling at the memory of Rada and his virtual “raised hand,” I have a hunch it was his way of taking his eccentricity and running with it. He came, he saw and, upon realizing he didn’t quite fit in, he improvised.

Try doing that with a status bar.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com