Lana Mavor is heading to Florida next week to train at the prestigious IMG Academy, then to compete in a national tennis tournament.

Kaci-Lee Ver Sluis recently went to Maryland and South Carolina for training sessions and then to compete in the Beltsville Open in Maryland, a highly competitive judo tournament.

Even with school back in session, neither girl is missing classes or falling behind in her studies.

Mavor, a 16-year-old high school junior from Yarmouth, and Ver Sluis, a 12-year-old seventh-grader from Sabattus, are enrolled in the Maine Virtual Academy, a public charter school based in Augusta that instructs students through online classes.

Education through virtual schools provides high-level young athletes such as these the flexibility to travel to out-of-state competitions while maintaining their classwork. In some cases, however, virtual schools have come under criticism for falling short of the education provided by traditional schools.

Mavor, who won the Maine Principals’ Association girls’ singles championship last spring while representing Yarmouth High, is among New England’s – and the nation’s – top tennis players in her age group. Ver Sluis is a member of the U.S. Junior judo team and has competed internationally.

“It really helps me, gives me the flexibility to travel and practice throughout the day,” said Mavor. “Sometimes I’m gone for long weekends and it enables me to do my schoolwork on the road. And with all the classes being recorded, if I miss it because I’m practicing or playing, I can go back and watch it; or if I don’t understand something, I can go back and re-watch it and learn it.”

Maine Virtual Academy – or MEVA – is one of two virtual schools in Maine, the other being the Maine Connections Academy in South Portland, which was the first virtual school approved by the Maine Charter School Commission in 2014. Both are tuition-free, online public schools. There are public virtual schools in 34 states nationwide.

MEVA is entering its third year and has 390 students in grades 7-12. Computers and printers are provided to families if requested. Students generally take five to seven courses per semester, and are required to participate in individual or group activities during the class.

TRAINING, COMPETITION FLEXIBILITY

Both Mavor and Ver Sluis attended public schools until their competition schedules became loaded. Ver Sluis took summer courses this year and is starting her first full academic year with MEVA. Her courses include math, reading, science, social studies and art.

“In judo, the majority of the competitions are from January to June, which is the school year,” said Kate Ver Sluis, Kaci-Lee’s mom. “In order for (Kaci-Lee) to make the national tournaments, she missed a lot of school. Sabattus was good for her, but we felt it was best that we find something where she could maintain her studies.”

Now, if Ver Sluis is competing in the Bahamas (where she was recently the only member of the U.S. team to bring home two medals) or the Dominican Republic or Florida, she can keep up with her classes, even if she misses one.

“On days when she has a practice or competition, she can notify her teachers that she won’t be there live,” said Kate Ver Sluis. “But she can watch it at night and still keep up.”

Dr. Melinda Browne, the head of school at MEVA, said athletes like Mavor and Ver Sluis can benefit greatly from an online education. Browne estimates that 25 percent of MEVA’s students are athletes.

“Obviously, Lana and Kaci-Lee are something special and very serious about their sports,” she said. “One of the features of our model that is appealing to students like them is that, if they are unable to attend their lesson in real time – and that’s kind of rare, they generally do – but if they’re on a plane or traveling, they let the school know they will not be in the live class. And then they are able to watch the recorded session and complete the assessment of the lesson and any required assignments.

“It’s set up so students know what they’ve missed. It’s set up so they can easily catch up. We do hold them accountable; each class has a syllabus to follow. But this offers them a tremendous amount of flexibility.”

Mavor, who is ranked No. 1 in New England and No. 48 nationally in the girls’ 16-and-under age category, has been a student with MEVA since it opened. Mavor said her virtual education is not lacking.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “They assign you a lot of work. The workload is not easy at all. I’m taking honors classes, AP courses, so it’s not a walk in the park.”

challenge of ncaa standards

Virtual schools nationwide have often received critical reviews from the National Education Policy Center over the years, citing poor test scores, a lower graduation rate than traditional schools and a lack of interaction between teachers and students.

Two years ago, the NCAA announced that it would not accept coursework from many virtual schools operated by K12 Inc. – the same learning platform used by MEVA – at any Division I or Division II school.

Emily Riordan, senior manager of corporate communications for K12 Inc., said in an email that several virtual schools affiliated with K12 “have had coursework and proof of graduation cleared by the NCAA.”

Browne said MEVA has been working with the NCAA since last spring to gain approval for its courses.

“I would say we’re close to wrapping it up,” said Browne. “We’re very patient and we’re doing what we’re asked to do. We feel very strongly about our program.”

Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, has authored several reports on virtual schools for the National Education Policy Center.

He believes that virtual schools need much improving and should put more money into their teachers and educational services, but he also thinks they serve motivated students like Mavor and Van Sluis very well.

“I can see for child actors and child athletes, it could be a viable thing,” he said. “There’s no data on how many take advantage of it. But it’s a nice option for them to stay enrolled.”

Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Study for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, called virtual schools “a burgeoning field” that will continue to grow as more schools take a global approach to education. The task ahead, he said, is providing a diverse online education while meeting the NCAA eligibility requirements, especially for athletes competing at what he called “the elite levels of youth sports.”

“Those are the questions that will have to be sorted out in terms of what makes an athlete NCAA-eligible and what doesn’t,” he said.

maintaining friends, social life

Mavor plans to play in college and would like to take tennis “as far as it can take me.”

Likewise, Ver Sluis has big ambitions for judo.

“I want to be an Olympian when I grow up,” she said. “I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work to make it.”

Neither Mavor nor Van Sluis misses the social aspect of school. When they are home, they still hang out with their friends.

In fact, said Ver Sluis, some of her friends often join her in her garage for workouts on the judo dummies she has there.

“Sometimes I use them as practice and teach them some self-defense,” she said. “We always catch up.”

UPDATE: This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 19 to correct the New England and national rankings of tennis player Lana Mavor.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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