WEST GARDINER — Promotional materials for Maine’s first virtual charter school could do worse than to feature Karinna Dawbin’s children.
If Maine Connections Academy opens this fall, a lot of its students will probably resemble Dawbin’s three children in one way or another, so well do they epitomize the description given by virtual school advocates of students who benefit from that model.
Students in virtual schools learn mostly at home, receiving instruction and interacting with teachers online. Supporters say they work for students who have been bullied, have health problems, need an alternative schedule or want to move at a faster pace than a typical school can accommodate.
Virtual charter schools are also subject to plenty of criticism. Most are operated by for-profit companies, with public education dollars feeding the companies’ bottom lines. Many of the virtual schools in other states have poor records of student achievement.
The list of students who may benefit from virtual schooling echo Dawbin’s reasons for pulling two of her children out of the local public schools and wanting to enroll all of them in Maine Connections Academy.
Dawbin’s 9-year-old son, Peter, isn’t eligible to enroll in the school because the Maine Charter School Commission approved it only for grades 7-12. But Dawbin is hopeful that when he’s old enough, he won’t have the problems in a virtual school that led his mother to decide in January to homeschool him.
Dawbin said that Peter performs well on standardized tests, but his grades started to slip this year because he couldn’t focus in class. He sometimes didn’t turn in assignments, but teachers had too much on their plates to follow up with Dawbin in a timely manner. She believes that in a virtual school, she and the teachers will be able to track her children’s progress more closely.
Dawbin’s 13-year-old daughter, Kyara, was homeschooled until fourth grade because of chronic asthma that triggered monthslong illnesses every time she got a cold.
Now in eighth grade, Kyara is being homeschooled again. With Kyara preparing to enter high school, Dawbin hopes Maine Connections Academy can give her access to Advanced Placement and honors classes not on offer at typical brick-and-mortar high schools.
“I like the classes that are available,” she said. “I have aspirations that my children will go to college, so I want them to have a well-rounded education.”
Dawbin said all of her children have experienced bullying. She sees virtual school as a way to balance the safe environment of home with social interaction available through the clubs and field trips Maine Connections Academy plans to organize.
Another mother interested in virtual school, Caroline Lauzon, first heard about the concept from a friend in California with two children in a school run by Connections Education, the Maryland-based company that will run Maine Connections Academy.
“She’s the one that told me that if it were in Maine, to grab it,” said Lauzon, who lives in Waterville. “When I found out that they had actually started this, I just knew it was right for us.”
Lauzon pulled her 14-year-old son, James, out of the local public school this year because there were too many distractions and too much drama, she said.
She has an education background and thinks she can keep him on task, and she’s excited that he’ll have access to foreign language classes and advanced mathematics.
“There is just a wealth of information, especially on the Internet,” she said. “It really is the way the future is going to go. Plus, you have all the safety of knowing where your child is.”
Lauzon said she was not aware of the criticisms of virtual charter schools. She thinks they have the potential to be a solution for students who struggle in traditional schools, like her eldest son, whose Asperger’s syndrome made finishing high school a struggle.
Dawbin said she believes that when virtual schools seem to be underperforming, it’s because students’ “learning coaches” — the adults, usually parents, who are supposed to supervise the students at home — are not sufficiently involved. She said that wouldn’t be a problem for her children.
The Charter School Commission approved Maine Connections Academy on March 3 under the shadow of a bill in the Legislature to place a moratorium. Three days later, however, Gov. LePage vetoed the bill.
The margin of passage in the House for L.D. 1736 would not be enough to override the veto, and Dawbin hopes it will hold. She’s worried that Kyara would miss her chance at a virtual education entirely if there’s a delay.
“If the moratorium goes through, I feel it puts Maine further behind the rest of the country,” she said.