AUGUSTA — The graduation ceremony was like any other: black caps and gowns and general advice doled out, telling students they have bright futures ahead of them.

But the four students who received their high school diplomas at a small ceremony Tuesday had never sat in classrooms with their fellow graduates or even met them in person before that day.

The students, along with a fifth who couldn’t attend the ceremony, were the inaugural graduates of the state’s first virtual charter school, Maine Connections Academy.

This past school year, four years after Maine lawmakers approved the law allowing charter schools, there were six charter schools in the state, but Maine Connections Academy was the only one without physical classrooms. A seventh charter school and second virtual one, The Maine Virtual Academy, is set to open in the fall.

Students can choose to attend charter schools, which offer different educational programs or settings compared to traditional public schools. Public school districts now have to pay the tuition for local students attending charter schools, but a bill passed last month will shift the funding responsibility to the state.

Students in Tuesday’s graduation said they enrolled at Maine Connections Academy, which is based in South Portland, because they were dissatisfied with the education at their previous schools.

One student, Shaynah-Cherokeigh Seames, of Bethel, said the online classes at Maine Connections Academy allowed her to learn at her own pace. In her speech at the ceremony, she said Maine Connections Academy let her do what she loves — hunting, fishing and caring for horses — while still getting her schoolwork done.

Seames, 18, previously attended schools in Bethel-based School Administrative District 44, but had been home-schooled since 10th grade, she said. When she was in school previously, Seames said, she found she learned differently from and more quickly than her peers.

“I was always getting bored in class, and I didn’t want to do my work,” she said.

Seames was joined at the ceremony by graduates Serena Billie-Jo Gorham, of Lyman, and Maddy Dexter, of Portland.

The ceremony also served as a promotion for charter schools, which have been controversial in the state.

Critics, including public education groups in Maine, have questioned the quality of the education and have bemoaned the allocation of public funding for the schools. Supporters say charter schools provide more options to students, including those who might struggle in traditional classrooms or need more flexibility because of other commitments.

Maine Connections Academy is operated by Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based virtual school division of Pearson PLC, a publishing and education company in London.

A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of Connections Education, which controls Connections Academy, and K12, the country’s largest online education company, showed that Maine’s digital education policies benefited the two companies, that the companies recruited board members in the state and that their schools in other states had fared poorly in analyses of student achievement.

Maine Connections Academy held its graduation ceremony at the Maine Principals’ Association building in Augusta, even though the association opposed the 2011 legislation to allow charter schools in Maine.

Principal Karl Francis, in his welcome speech at Tuesday’s ceremony, espoused the benefits of charter schools and reflected on how Maine Connections Academy has changed since the start of its inaugural year. Instead of hearing people question the school’s ability to enroll enough students or the effectiveness of the education, he said he now sees teachers and students collaborating to improve the school.

“We all stand strong and united to challenge those who challenge our value, our worth, our mission,” Francis said. “We all stand strong and united with unwavering resolve for school choice and for the students of Maine.”

The school had 265 to 270 students in its first year, and next year it’s expected to have 396 students, Francis said. The school also is hiring five new staff members to manage the increase, he said.

“It’s no longer trying to get to the surface. It’s how do we make ourselves better,” Francis said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @pdkoenig

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