The state’s first two charter schools had strong first years, although there is still room for improvement, according to the state commission that oversees them.

Both the Cornville Regional Charter School, in Cornville, and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, in Fairfield, have fulfilled their mission statements and expectations of their contracts, according to reports released by the Maine Charter School Commission earlier this month.

The commission evaluates the performance of the state’s charter schools through announced and unannounced school visits and releases an annual monitoring report. The undated reports for the two schools, which were completed over the summer, were made public after review by the Department of Education, according to Jana Lapoint, the commission’s chairwoman.

“We were very pleased with both schools. There was very little that gave us cause for concern,” Lapoint said.

The two charter schools opened in the fall of 2012 after Maine became the 41st state to allow charter schools, which are public schools that receive some state funds but are operated by community members, parents or teachers. Charter schools are exempt from some state regulations, but students still are required to take standardized tests used for calculating proficiency in mathematics and reading. Lapoint said their evaluations are based on contracts that the school develops with the commission before it is approved to open. The standards are similar to requirements that the state sets for traditional public schools, she said.

Because the schools are so new, there is not enough data for the state Department of Education to assign them A through F letter grades, the method of evaluation used for other public schools in the state, department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said.

In the future, the schools will receive letter grades, which were introduced in the 2012-2013 school year and are based on standardized test scores, students’ progress on those tests over time and the performance and growth of students.

Acting education commissioner Jim Rier said in a news release that based on the commission reports, the Department of Education is pleased with the two charter schools’ progress in their first year.

“With encouraging reports from an independent commission and the continued overwhelmingly positive student and family feedback and outcomes, it’s time to move beyond the debate about publicly-funded charter schools in our state and accept they are here to stay. I applaud these new school communities on their early success,” Rier said.

The commission used testing results from the 2012-2013 school year as a benchmark by which future results can be measured and that later will provide a clearer indication of progress, Lapoint said.

For students at the Cornville school, results of the regional NECAP test showed that student proficiency rates were well below Maine’s average in mathematics and just slightly above average for reading. The test was administered within two weeks of school starting, which means it is more of a reflection of students’ educational background instead of their learning at the charter school, said Justin Belanger, executive director of the Cornville school.

Belanger was generally pleased with his school’s performance and the evaluation process.

“It was a very thorough process and we appreciate the commission’s hard work, because that is how our school will improve,” Belanger said.

At MeANS in Fairfield, 11th-grade students took the SAT, which in Maine is used to asses high school proficiency rates, but state and federal laws prevent the release of results because of the small size of the class, according to the department. Only 10 students took the test, Lapoint said.

For the high school, part of the evaluation also included graduation rates and the numbers of students who are employed or enrolled in postsecondary education after graduation.

According to the report, the MeANS school had a 90 percent graduation rate. In addition, 40 percent of seniors who graduated in 2013 have enrolled in post-secondary education and 60 percent have full-time employment.

Both schools had high attendance rates, with 95 percent daily attendance at the Cornville school and 93 percent in Fairfield.

The schools also were evaluated on their plans for the future, including returning student rates and development of facilities.

There are currently 66 students enrolled at MeANS and the Cornville school has 90 students enrolled, which means both have met targets for enrollment numbers, according to the report.

The commission recommended that the Cornville school consider some building upgrades, although the report states that overall it is in good condition. Half of the school dates to 1950, Belanger said. Because charter schools do not receive state funding for buildings, costs of maintenance and repair must come from the school’s general fund account, meaning there is less money for student programs and activities, Belanger said. They are working on installing propane heating tanks, which will cost an estimated $11,000 but should be made up in savings for heating costs, he said.

Finally, the reports also took the academic and social climate of both schools into consideration.

At the Cornville school, incidents of teasing on the two district school buses led the school to hire two bus monitors for this school year, Belanger said.

“When a kid goes home upset and an incident on the bus ruins their whole day, we can’t have that. We decided to make sure the entire experience is positive,” Belanger said. Since the bus monitors were started, he said, there have been no major problems.

At MeANS, the school was successful in meeting social targets even though there were some incidents, according to the commission report.

“Our site visit found that there is an excellent climate during the school day. However, resident students described after-school problems in the house setting that affected their overall sense of well-being,” the report states, tallying three incidents of bullying, harassment or other abusive behavior. There were also 14 incidents of suspected substance abuse and four instances of drug paraphernalia, according to the report.

The after-school program is run by the Good Will-Hinckley organization, which oversees the charter school as well as other education programs at the Fairfield campus. Thirty-nine MeANS students live on campus, according to the executive director and president of the school, Glenn Cummings.

Good Will-Hinckley, founded in 1889, was a residential school that closed in 2009 because of financial problems. It opened the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in September 2011.

“We made it very clear there were problems with the after-school program run by the Good Will-Hinckley organization, and we were concerned they would spill over into the school day,” Lapoint said. “Those situations were handled well by the school and I think are under control.”

Cummings said there were instances of one or two students being bullied in the residential program and that the school has since held an anti-bullying program. The Good Will-Hinckley organization has also hired a full-time campus life supervisor to oversee life in the residential cottages and respond quickly if there is a problem. There have been no reports of bullying this school year, Cummings said.

“There were a few isolated instances of teenagers making bad choices that were occurring at evening in the residential program. Like every high school in the country, we are not immune to these problems but have taken action to address them and feel we are now a stronger environment,” Cummings said.

The schools will be visited by the commission at least twice this year, Lapoint said. There are also three additional charter schools that opened in the state this year, and they can expect to be visited once every three months, she said.

The evaluations and regular visits by the commission should give the schools guidance, as well as help them improve and meet standards, Lapoint said.

Rachel Ohm— 612-2368[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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