AUGUSTA — Maine’s newest charter school, Maine Virtual Academy, has seen 25 percent of its student body withdraw from the school since it opened this fall and continues to have a high number of “truants” who are not logging on enough for their lessons, school officials say.
At the 90-day mark for the school year, 76 students in the initial class of 297 had left the school, according to a Dec. 31 report by three members of the Maine Charter School Commission who are assigned to oversee the school.
On Tuesday, commission Chairwoman Shelley Reed said representatives of K12 Inc., the for-profit online education company that was contracted to provide Maine Virtual Academy’s curriculum, told the commission they should expect to see an initial 20 percent to 25 percent withdrawal rate.
But Reed said the commission may explore ways to better inform incoming families about what to expect, to lower the withdrawal rate. Suggestions include requiring students to take a “tryout week” in the school.
“People have to have a general understanding of what to anticipate,” she said, after the commission’s regular monthly meeting at the State House.
“We need to find a better way,” said commission member Jana Lapoint, agreeing that a tryout period is a good idea. “Maybe a better screening job.”
Maine Virtual Academy board member Peter Mills said Tuesday that school representatives explain to prospective students and families what the school will be like, but the school must, by Maine law, accept any applicant. As more successful students return in subsequent years, the withdrawal rate is expected to decline, he said.
Mills said Tuesday that some students left because they weren’t prepared for a virtual school experience, which requires each student to log on from home, be self-directed and work closely with an at-home learning coach, usually a parent or relative. The school, like all charters, has attracted students who are unhappy with their previous schooling, or have had trouble at previous schools, he said.
“We’re dealing with a certain segment of the student population that has apparently got some problems and they have come to us as a last resort …” he said, adding, “I’m deeply concerned about this phenomenon.”
Supporters of virtual schools say they are good for students who may not fit in at traditional schools, such as athletes in training or students who have been bullied or have special needs. But virtual charter schools also have drawn criticism, in part because local school boards outsource their management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.
Maine Virtual Academy holds exit interviews with departing students, and reports those results to the commission. That information includes how long the student was enrolled, their reasons for leaving and where they will go to school next. The information wasn’t available for public release Tuesday because students’ names and other identifying information hadn’t been removed, said Bob Kautz, the commission’s executive director.
Some students who were listed as having dropped out never even logged on – so they effectively never attended the school but are still registered as withdrawals, he noted.
Mills didn’t have details from the exit interviews, but the board had requested that information from school officials.
Maine Virtual Academy has a contract with K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia, the nation’s largest online education company, for academic services. The state’s other virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, contracts its services from Connections Academy, a division of Maryland-based Connections Education, a for-profit company that is owned by Pearson PLC in London, a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and publishes textbooks for many schools in the United States.
A spokesman for K12 Inc. didn’t return calls Tuesday regarding the national average for the first-year withdrawal rate at their other schools nationwide.
According to a research study in July 2012 by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, virtual schools tend to have higher withdrawal rates than physical schools, indicating parents may see virtual schools as a temporary service. Citing a K12 Inc. report on student performance, the study said that 23 percent of students in K12 schools around the country were enrolled for less than a year and 67 percent had been enrolled for fewer than two years.
The withdrawal rate at Maine’s other virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy, was 11 percent 90 days after it opened in the fall of 2014. This year, its 90-day withdrawal rate had dropped to 7 percent.
Mills said K12 provided the school with a locally hired family support liaison at no cost whose responsibility is to support the students and family, and address the withdrawal and truancy issue.
The school’s exact truancy rate was not available Tuesday, commissioners said.
The school also is struggling to get students tested, officials said. Only about 60 percent of students this fall took the NWEA test, which is supposed to be used to set a baseline for assessing student growth – a key factor in evaluating whether a charter school is successful and whether its contract with the state should be renewed.
Mills said that he thought the testing rate was related to the issues with the truancy and withdrawal rate, and that many of the families who are attracted to charter schools also dislike standardized testing and traditional education.
Commission chairwoman Reed said the commission intends to request more data from Maine Virtual Academy and continue site visits and meetings.
The school has kept a steady enrollment because it filled vacant positions with students on a waiting list, Mills said. That means its overall enrollment, used to calculate state payments, has not changed significantly and there is minimal impact on its budget.
While state funding for Maine students follow the student, there is no significant impact financially on MVA students’ traditional school districts if they return, because the state budgets payments based on an estimated enrollment for the school year, and then on actual headcounts of students Oct. 1.
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 recruited board members in the state, and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.
Both Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy received approval to open only after significantly changing their business plans to require more direct management by the Maine-based boards, and decreasing the role and authority of K12 and Connections Education.
Also Tuesday, the commission said the state was withholding $441,000 earmarked for the commission, requiring it to tap into its surplus to make up for a higher-than-expected per-pupil cost.
The state had estimated paying $14 million overall to the charter schools, but the actual cost was $14.7 million. Kautz, the executive director, said the commission could afford the one-time cost while the state Department of Education works out whether the funds were considered a loan to be repaid by the state or a permanent one-time cost to the commission.
Kautz said the main reason for the higher-than-expected costs was that the charter schools enrolled more special education students, who have a higher per-pupil rate – about $8,000 more per student.