Four years after Maine Virtual Academy opened, the state’s second online charter school is struggling with absenteeism, a low graduation rate and weak test scores.

The school, which is looking to have its charter renewed this fall, had a chronic absenteeism rate of more than 30 percent in 2017-2018, although school officials say they’ve brought that number down in the last year.

The four-year graduation rate, according to the Maine Department of Education, was 49 percent – compared with the statewide rate of almost 87 percent.

And on state assessments, 42 percent of students were at proficiency in English language arts, compared with 50 percent statewide, and just under 13 percent were proficient in math, compared with 37 percent statewide.

Officials from Maine Virtual Academy and representatives of the Maine Charter School Commission, which oversees charter schools statewide, say there’s more to the school than the story told by the numbers.

“I feel very strongly this last year we’ve had dramatic improvements,” said Peter Mills, a member of the school’s board of directors. “We keep getting better and we’re able to measure from year to year whether we’re getting better and how and where. The commission expects to see progress. They expect to see people stumbling at the beginning.”

But a state lawmaker said a recent third-party report that gave a negative review of the school’s performance has highlighted concerns and points to a need for more accountability, not just with Maine Virtual Academy but charter schools in general.

“It’s a concern with any school – charter or not – if they’re really struggling, because that’s one year lost for these students,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, co-chair of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

“Yes, we understand there’s an on-boarding process that happens, but there definitely needs to be a clear picture of what the expectations are and what is the time frame.”

The independent report stands in contrast with a four-year performance review done recently by the commission, which acknowledges the school did not meet targets in a number of areas but doesn’t list any specific problems that should be addressed.

The concerns come as the Maine Department of Education prepares to launch an eight-year study of charter school performance in Maine and as the commission looks to approve a charter for a 10th and final charter spot.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin did not have a comment specific to the performance of Maine Virtual Academy but said in a statement that she is looking forward to the eight-year report to help inform a statewide conversation on charter schools and next steps.

Charter schools, which under state law are limited to 10 schools, have brought debate over both funding and quality of education since their inception in Maine.

Virtual schools in particular have drawn scrutiny because of poor outcomes in other states, and questions about the effectiveness of online learning and how much local control schools would have from the independent companies contracted to provide services.

A 2012 Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found that when charter schools were first proposed in Maine, national online education companies, including K12 Inc., the company that helps run Maine Virtual Academy, were helping to shape digital education policies while standing to profit from changes.

The concerns led to extra layers of accountability built into Maine’s two online schools, including the requirement that the schools undergo annual third-party reviews to be submitted to the charter commission.

Proponents of charter schools say they face unique challenges because many serve students who have struggled in traditional academic environments and are looking for alternatives.

In the first year since the school opened, Mills said he was surprised by the types of students who were choosing to sign up for online learning.

Many had physical or emotional disabilities or were disengaged from school. Some didn’t want to attend classes at their former schools and were looking to a virtual school as a final resort to get them to graduation.

At the online school, students are mostly required to attend live sessions taught by teachers who work out of an office in Augusta.

They have the freedom to choose their own classes but are also required to have a learning coach, such as a parent or other adult, to provide home-based support.

Corina Beggs, whose son Zachary started attending Maine Virtual Academy as a high school freshman and is now going into his senior year, said he was being bullied in a traditional school.

When her disabled husband became sick, having Zachary home to help take care of him while she went to work was an additional benefit the school provided.

“My son has excelled,” said Beggs, of New Gloucester. “The teachers have encouraged him and worked with him. He’s getting better grades. I know for a fact if there had not been this school he probably would have dropped out.”

“The teachers care about actually helping students pass,” said Zachary Beggs, 17. “I know for me, the teachers have gone further than many brick-and-mortar teachers would to help me graduate.”

According to the independent report, written in January by Sarah Butler Jessen of the White Barn Center for Research, the roughly 390 students who attend Maine Virtual Academy come from 105 school districts around the state.

Most of them are economically disadvantaged and about 13 percent chose to attend virtual school to avoid bullying at public schools. Fifteen percent require special education services, which is less than the statewide average of almost 18 percent.

“Multiple questions have been raised in this report about the efficacy of the school in serving students academically,” the report reads. “In particular, test scores frequently show an average of negative growth, and are not meeting state expectations. Related to this, the issues that arose regarding attendance, grading and test scores seem potentially inter-related…. These are problematic trends.”

Meanwhile, the charter commission report commends the school for a dramatic decrease in its rate of chronic absenteeism, development of its leadership team and the recent acquisition of additional teaching and office space at its brick-and-mortar facility in Augusta.

Its only recommendation for change is that the school consider growing its board of directors, which is made up of four members.

“It wasn’t worth listing concerns where we know they’ve been addressing it,” said Gina Post, the commission’s director of program management. “There were no particular concerns at the time the report was written, and prior to having a vote on the renewal there will be another visit to the school.”

But the independent report, completed just six months before the commission’s report, lists a number of concerns that can be backed up by recent Department of Education data.

It points to higher rates of absenteeism, chronic absenteeism and dropouts than the state of Maine overall and a significantly lower graduation rate.

At the online school, a student is marked absent if they don’t attend a day of live sessions and don’t have an excused absence.

“The whole point (of online school) is it can be used flexibly, but we want to make sure people aren’t misusing it,” said Melinda Browne, CEO and head of school. “If there’s no good reason for you to not be there in real time, we expect you to be there.”

She said attendance has improved since the school hired a full-time attendance coordinator about a year and a half ago and cut down on the number of students allowed to watch video recordings rather than attend the live sessions.

Post also said the school’s four-year graduation rate of just under 50 percent doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly.

“While we’re concerned with the graduation rate, we want to take into consideration the full picture of the 4, 5 and 6-year graduation rates,” she said. “The school only just finished its fourth year, so we can’t look at the fifth and sixth years.”

Both the commission’s report and the independent report found that the school is not meeting most of its targets when it comes to academic proficiency.

“(The MEA) doesn’t tell us if we’ve been successful,” said Mills, the school board member, pointing instead to recent improvements students made on the NWEA test, which measures individual student growth.

“Yes, is it disturbing to me that a kid in our school or any school is not acquiring what he needs to graduate? Yes. But that’s why we’re devoting more resources.”

The independent report describes other challenges, including problems with technology, high student-teacher ratios and questions related to work completion and grading policies.

It pointed to concerns from teachers about pressure to pass students at the end of the school year, and the development of “back-on-track plans” designed to exempt failing students from enough coursework to enable them to pass.

Browne said the school has looked into that feedback in the report and reviewed its grading policies.

“It isn’t anything going on at the school at this time,” she said. “If that was done in the past, it was for students with special needs.”

Low test scores and other critical aspects of the report didn’t bother Beggs, the New Gloucester parent.

Like many of the parents described in the report, she praised the school’s strong connections between teachers and students and a positive environment.

“I would say they’re great,” Beggs said. “It’s hard to compare to a brick-and-mortar school. If they’re going to compare, they should compare to another virtual academy.”

Maine’s other online charter school, Maine Connections Academy, received a five-year charter renewal last year despite concerns about student retention.

The school had a 36 percent rate of chronic absenteeism in 2017-2018, according to the Department of Education, and a four-year graduation rate of 57 percent.

Fifty-seven percent of students were at or above state expectations in English language arts, compared with 50 percent statewide, and 25 percent were at or above expectations in math, compared with 37 percent statewide.

The most recent third-party review of Maine Connections Academy, completed in May, was done by a different third-party contractor.

It gave the school an overall positive review but did mention concerns about truancy and inadequate student achievement.

Mills said both virtual schools are subject to additional oversight and monitoring not seen in traditional public schools, including requirements for annual and four-year reviews and the charter renewal process.

“It’s an ongoing experiment,” he said. “And quite an interesting one, I might say.”

Rachel Ohm — 791-6388

[email protected]herald.com

Twitter: @rachel_ohm