Karl Francis certainly has no beef with traditional public schools. He attended them. His children attend them. And he worked for public schools for nearly 20 years.

But Francis jumped quickly when he heard that a virtual charter school had been approved in Maine and was looking for someone to head up the effort.

“I’ve always been of the state of mind of let’s look at the individual student and find some programming that meets their needs,” said Francis, now principal of Maine Connections Academy.

The school, which relies primarily on an online curriculum purchased from a British company, opened this month with 297 students, the maximum allowed by the state, and a long waiting list for any spots that open up. Interest was so high that Portland school officials, worried about the number of students attracted to the privately-run charter school, recently considered setting up its own online curriculum to draw back MCA students. School officials were also hoping to bring back the state aid that flows to charter schools, which now goes to the districts where the charter school’s students live. Portland school officials ultimately decided not to pursue that option, at least for now.

Francis grew up in Casco and worked in the hospitality industry before selling most of his goods, buying a backpack and traveling the world. Returning to Maine, he taught at Lake Regional Vocational Center and was a school counselor in Saco and Westbrook.

Maine Connections Academy has 12 employees, eight of them teachers.

Q: What about the charter school attracted you?

A: I knew instantly that it was a concept that applies directly to my philosophy and who I am as an educator. It’s all about student choice, family choice and the individual needs of a student. Public schools offer a great education. I think they do a great job, but there are some students who need something different and that’s where the charter schools come in. I talk with families, and kids and parents who have been looking for other options because their children don’t learn in a traditional setting, whether it’s the classroom or the time of day, and charter schools are a great option. It all boils down to individual choice and what’s best for that student and family.

As far as taking away from (public) schools, I’m of a different mind – the money is following the student and the individual needs of the students. We have a cap out there; we can’t (enroll) more than 5 percent of a class (in a single district), so were not going to decimate an entire classroom or eliminate a teacher. That’s to help safeguard those local schools.

Q: What do you think of Portland considering starting its own online curriculum?

A: My hat’s off to the superintendent for trying to meet the needs of his kids. There’s only a handful of kids going to charter schools out of Portland, but the superintendent did a great job, saying let’s look within and see if we can offer that. It’s a question of whether it’s cost-effective.

Q: You actually have a bricks-and-mortar location, even though the students are at home, right?

A: It’s a central location (in South Portland) for the teachers to work from and collaborate. We have teachers here every day, like in an office setting, and students can come in to visit and say hi and meet the teachers. The teachers have high-end technology to work with kids through the day and they give live lessons, so the teacher has a lesson that they broadcast (once a week) and students from Fort Kent to Kittery join that streaming broadcast.

Q: What do you think are the advantages of an online school?

A: The curriculum is rigorous and aligned with (the academic standards of) Common Core and Maine Learning Results. It’s a very good, accredited curriculum and kids have a daily lesson plan. They chip away at their own pace, typically five to six hours a day. Some move quickly in the program and some need more support. As they work through the lessons, the teachers monitor progress and look at work completed, do grading work, provide feedback and communicate with the kids and families. It’s more of a facilitation of learning than being in front of the classroom teaching every day. A majority of a teacher’s time is spent marking progress and helping a child to learn at their own pace. It really meets the needs of the kids, because they come to us for different reasons. Some just learn differently and may have had A’s and B’s in their school, but they want to try something different. Some students have physical limitations or anxieties in the classroom and this eliminates those barriers. Some are high-level athletes and are at a remote location for training, or a ballerina taking lessons or a singer taking vocal courses. When competition or training (occurs) during school hours, this just works.

Q: What about students who want to play on a school team or take part in a school play?

A: Students are allowed to participate at their local school based on superintendent approval. So a student in Windham could go to Maine Connections Academy and play football, as long as they go to the superintendent and receive local permission.

Q: How many students do you have?

A: We have offered 297 enrollments, which is our maximum. We have 175 on our waiting list. I think there will be an opportunity for a little growth next year. The Maine Charter School Commission sets the parameters and it allows for some growth the second year and a little growth beyond that.

Q: How do you deal with just eight teachers for nearly 300 students?

A: We have eight teachers and a guidance counselor and a special education coordinator and administrative assistant and me. Four of the teachers are focused on middle-school level classes and the other four on the grade 9-12 curriculum.

There’s a personalized plan for each student and the teachers team up to talk about how to align the curriculum the best way we can or look at intervention on a particular student. They all sit down at the table together and when one teacher has a student in live lesson they can offer some advice on all subjects. It’s a complete collaboration and you can invite just four or five students who need more support to a live session and work on it together. Or if you see four or five students flying through (the curriculum), you can invite them into an honors cohort and go deeper. It’s really the best of both worlds.

Q: What do the teachers tell you about it?

A: One veteran teacher said he’s having deeper and better conversations with kids than he’s ever had. In a traditional setting, everything is so rushed. Here, he said, he can call the kid directly, talk to them, talk to their parents and really get to know the kids.

Q: What’s the next step for MCA?

A: I definitely would love to spend some time with the state to talk about enrollment and funding. We have some things to work out. I think we’re strong and it’s important for us to get things right this year and then work on the details and talk about how to become an even better school for Maine. Most of my energy in my career has been spent on creating non-traditional programming in a traditional setting. Here, it’s about what we want to do and how to make it work.


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