Organizers of Maine’s first virtual charter school plan to begin hiring staff members and recruiting students as soon as they sign a contract with the state Department of Education, board members said Tuesday.

Maine Connections Academy won initial approval Monday from the Maine Charter School Commission, and is now on track to serve as many as 750 students in grades 7 through 12 across the state.

Board members say they plan to start operating this fall and will begin recruiting students from among more than 3,000 parents who have inquired about the online academy, including several who asked to be notified when they can submit applications for their children.

In its first year, Maine Connections Academy is expected to limit enrollment to about 270 students and give preference to students in grades 7 through 9 so their progress can be measured from year to year.

It’s one of 13 requirements proposed by the commission that must be negotiated by lawyers for the school and the Department of Education before a charter contract can be signed by the April 1 deadline.

Students in virtual schools learn largely from home, getting lessons online and having limited face-to-face interaction with teachers and administrators. Supporters say the schools are good for students who don’t “fit” at traditional schools, from top athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied. Opponents say the schools nationally do not perform well and outsource their management to for-profit companies.

While some charter school opponents worry that Maine Connections Academy will fail to meet the commission’s requirements, organizers are confident that they will succeed.

“We’re going to comply with what the state of Maine wants from us,” said Nick McGee, a Scarborough resident and business owner who is treasurer of the academy’s five-member governing board.

PARENT HAD POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

Jenn Dodge is one parent who believes the academy would provide a good educational option for her four children, who are now in grades 6 to 10. Dodge said she has no complaints about the public schools in Lee, where the family lives, but she had a good experience when two of her children participated in the virtual public school operated by Connections Education in Pennsylvania.

Connections Education, a Maryland-based company that supports virtual schools in 23 states, would provide the curriculum and Internet platform for Maine Connections Academy.

Dodge said the teachers and tutors were responsive and helpful, and her children excelled.

“The curriculum was pretty much the same as they had in public school, but they had a lot more freedom,” Dodge said. “It really depends on the kid.”

In rural Maine, virtual education expands options for students in smaller districts, Dodge said, and if one of her children expressed interest in attending Maine Connections Academy, she would consider it.

In addition to recruiting students, the board will hire the school’s leadership and instructional staff and lease space to establish an educational center, likely in Scarborough, where the faculty will work, said Julie Hannon, a board member who lives in Scarborough and is a former teacher and principal.

A second educational center may operate in the center of the state, possibly in Bangor, Hannon said, in part to make it easier for students to meet occasionally with teachers and participate in shared activities such as field trips.

TEACHER UNION OPPOSES CHARTERS

Three of the school’s five board members are Scarborough residents, including the chairwoman, Amy Volk, a Republican state representative who co-sponsored the bill in 2011 that allowed charter schools in Maine. Volk didn’t respond to a call for comment Tuesday.

The other board members are Carol Weston, a former Republican state legislator who lives in Montville, and Amy Linscott, the board secretary, who lives in Millinocket.

In approving the academy’s 536-page application Monday, commission members said they were satisfied that the school would have adequate oversight.

In 2012, a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of Connections Education and K12 Inc., another for-profit company that sought to open a virtual school in Maine, showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

Connections Education officials didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Maine Education Association, which represents 24,000 public educators across the state, opposes charter schools because they take money from public school districts, show questionable results and lack adequate public oversight, said association President Lois Kilby-Chesley.

“Our biggest hope was that none of them would be approved,” she said Tuesday. “With charter schools, the money comes from the district where the student lives and reduces the amount of money left for students in the district.”

If Maine wants to offer virtual education, “it should be run by the state and not contracted out to a private mega-corporation,” Kilby-Chesley said.

The Maine School Boards Association has estimated that virtual charter schools would cost districts that lose students an average of $8,500 per student. Maine Connections Academy could receive as much as $6.4 million annually if it enrolls the maximum 750 students, the association said.

ROAD TO OPENING NOT CLEARED

Maine now has five charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of public school districts. By law, the state has a cap of 10 charter schools until 2021.

On Monday, the commission rejected an application for another virtual school, Maine Virtual Academy, which was backed by K12 Inc. of Virginia, and an application for the Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School.

The Legislature is now considering several bills regarding virtual charter schools. One bill, passed by the House last week, would impose a moratorium on the schools until 2015 while officials establish a plan to create a state-run virtual school. If that bill becomes law, it could affect the opening of Maine Connections Academy.

Another bill would change the way the state funds virtual schools.

Maine is one of 30 states, along with the District of Columbia, that allow full-time virtual charter schools. Nationwide, there were 311 full-time virtual schools in 2011-12 with nearly 200,000 students.

Last year, the Maine Charter School Commission created new rules for virtual schools, such as having the governing board employ top administrators, capping enrollment at 750 students and requiring weekly face-to-face meetings between core teachers and students, although they can be done online via Skype.

Other conditions imposed by the commission would require Maine Connections Academy to do annual exit interviews with students and staff members, and hire an independent third party to evaluate the work of the academy and Connections Education.

The academy also must have a provision in its contract with Connections Education that would allow the board to terminate their agreement with “reasonable notice,” and it must pay off a startup loan from Connections Education within three years.

The commission also wants to forbid Connections Education from using any recruiter with a financial incentive to bring in students. In addition, enrollment cannot fall below 243 students and cannot exceed 390 students until the commission is “satisfied” with the school’s educational performance.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

Twitter: KelleyBouchard


Correction: This story was updated at 11:31 a.m., March 5, 2014, to identify Connections Education as the virtual education service provider. It was the reporter’s error.