September 6, 2013

Seven groups want to open Maine charter schools

They submit letters of intent – five for schools with a special focus, and two providing 'virtual' learning.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Seven groups want to open new charter schools in Maine next fall, including two virtual schools that were rejected by the Maine Charter School Commission in past years, two Montessori schools and a career-oriented school for at-risk youths in Portland.

The seven groups submitted letters of intent by Tuesday's deadline. The applications, which can run 500 to 700 pages, are due Dec. 2.

"As we look over the letters of intent, it's very, very exciting the type of schools that potentially could come to Maine that would just aid more children having the opportunity to have choices," said Jana Lapoint, chairwoman of the charter school commission and a member of the state Board of Education.

Maine now has five charter schools. Two opened last year and three opened this year. The state law that authorized charter schools in Maine limits the number to 10.

The proposal for Adventures in Learning Career Academies in Portland says it would provide career-focused instruction to at-risk students in grades 6 to 12. Academies within the school would focus on business, health care and STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who has been sharply critical of Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, the charter school that opened this week in Portland, said he also opposes the proposal for a second charter school in Portland.

"Generally speaking, this proposal by this company reinforces my worst fears about charter schools. It ends up competing for public resources to basically support private schools," Brennan said.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are formed and operated by parents, teachers and community members. They operate independently of public school districts and are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to those districts.

Proponents say charter schools provide an alternative to traditional public schools, with the flexibility to use different teaching techniques that can better meet the needs of some students.

The Maine Education Association, the Maine Principals' Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine School Boards Association have generally opposed charter schools, saying they siphon away resources from traditional public schools.

The Maine Education Association, the union representing most of the state's teachers, said in a prepared statement, "The schools applying are simply private schools that want public funds. This is not the direction our state should be going in, and it is not the direction that will help every Maine student receive the best possible education. In truth, these are back-door voucher programs."

The other groups that submitted letters of intent to the commission are:

Birches Montessori School, for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and peers in central Maine, for kindergarten through sixth grade.

Inspire ME Academy in Sanford-Springvale, for grades 4, 5, 6 and adding grades 7 and 8 in the following two years. It would cater to poor and special-needs students, and the children would have longer school days, get breakfast, lunch and snack, and wear school-provided uniforms.

Lewiston-Auburn Academy Charter School, which says it will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics and will include a character development component.

Many Hands Montessori School in Windham, for kindergarten through third grade, expanding eventually to eighth grade.

Montessori educational philosophy stresses student-initiated, hands-on learning exercises, multi-age classrooms and extended blocks of educational time.

Maine Connections Academy.

Maine Virtual Academy.

The letters of intent are online at http://www.maine.gov/csc/, the commission's website.

Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy would be virtual schools, offering instruction online. Both applied and were rejected in previous rounds of review because the commission determined that they did not demonstrate enough independence in their local governance.

The virtual schools are proposed by two rival companies, K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Learning, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of the publishing giant Pearson.

The companies were the subject of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation, published Sept. 2, 2012, that showed how they were shaping Maine's digital education policies and how their schools in other states have fared poorly in studies of student achievement.

Their virtual schools would have been governed by local boards, but the out-of-state companies would have had broad management powers, including hiring and firing of administrators and teachers, and the provision of academic content and the student assessment data on which the schools might be judged.

Charter school commission members said they were troubled by the local governing boards' perceived lack of independence.

The teachers union criticized the new proposals for virtual charter schools. Its statement said, "Connections Academy has failed students nationwide," as most of the company's schools didn't make adequate yearly progress, but did turn a hefty profit for the company.

Bob Kautz, the commission's executive director, said he will not be surprised if the groups' proposals address the commission's concerns about virtual schools.

Both participated in a workshop with the commission to discuss how the state's request for proposals could better inform applicants about what the commission wanted, he said.

Also, the commission now has separate application guidelines and requirements for virtual schools that seek to incorporate qualities that have helped programs succeed elsewhere in the country, such as more interaction between students and instructors and among students.

"We tried to have applications that reflect those things the charter commission has seen across the country that might assure a more quality product," he said.

As many as five of the groups could win approval for new charter schools, but the commission has discussed limiting the number in the coming year because of the work involved with overseeing new schools.

Kautz said the commission opted not to set a firm limit.

Lapoint, the commission's chairwoman, said a goal of the commission in the coming year will be to counter some of the myths about charter schools.

She said they don't skim the best students, but enroll them on a first-come, first-served basis. She also said the parents of those students pay property taxes, so schools aren't taking tax money from public schools, they're just shifting it to other public schools.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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