As the state nears its 10-school cap, fall enrollment figures at existing Maine charter schools show high demand, with most schools operating at or near capacity.

The state’s second virtual charter school, Maine Virtual Academy, launches Tuesday with 296 students logging in, just shy of its 297-student cap. The year-old Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, is at capacity with 396 students this fall, with a waiting list of 140 students, officials said. Both schools serve grades 7-12.

Maine Virtual Academy leader Beth Ann Lorigan said the school’s nine teachers have been setting things up since mid-July.

“I have to say, it is very all-consuming,” said Lorigan, the chief executive officer. “We’ve had a lot of time to work together, and we’ve spent a lot of time training and planning for what we need to do this coming year.”

Lorigan said the students come from 91 school districts around the state.

“It’s amazing. Our schools are doing good,” said Shelley Reed, chairwoman of the Maine Charter School Commission, which authorizes and oversees the charter schools. A total of 1,540 students now attend charter schools in the state, which has a total of about 184,000 students.

Tuesday is also the deadline for the latest round of applications for groups hoping to open a charter school. Under the state’s 10-school cap, only three more schools can be approved.

Five groups have indicated they will apply, according to letters of intent filed in late June. Those groups are Inspire ME Academy in York County, Peridot Montessori Education in Hancock County, Sheepscot Bay Charter School in Wiscasset, Snow Pond Arts Academy in Sidney and a school in Lewiston-Auburn that has yet to be named.

“We could potentially reach our cap,” Reed said.

As of late Monday, none of the groups had submitted an application.

Supporters say the virtual schools, with students logging in from home for lessons, are good for students who may not fit in at traditional schools, such as athletes in training or students who have been bullied or have special needs. Virtual charter schools also have drawn criticism, in part, because local school boards outsource their management to for-profit companies that are beholden to shareholders.

Maine education and charter school officials note that they have imposed special rules on Maine virtual charter schools to address those concerns, including requirements that local school boards hire and employ all staff, that the schools maintain a physical location in Maine, and that teachers, administrators and staff live and work in Maine.

Maine Virtual Academy has a contract with K12 Inc. of Herndon, Virginia, the nation’s largest online education company, for academic services. Maine Connections Academy contracts its services from Connections Academy, a division of Maryland-based Connections Education, a for-profit company owned by Pearson PLC in London. Pearson is a multinational corporation that formulates standardized tests and publishes textbooks for many schools in the United States.

A 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of K12 and Connections Education showed that Maine’s digital education policies were being shaped in ways that 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’s five brick-and-mortar charters reported enrollments this fall that are at or near capacity, and two schools have opened satellite campuses. As of this fall:

Cornville Regional Charter School has about 105 students from 11 communities in grades K-8, with a waiting list of about 20 students.

Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, a high school, is at capacity with 122 students from 27 school districts. There is a waiting list.

Baxter Academy for Technology and Science in Portland is at capacity with 320 students, and has a waiting list of almost 100 students. The four-year high school also has opened a satellite campus at 561 Congress St., renting five classrooms with 8,000 square feet of space formerly used by the Salt Center for Documentary Studies. Baxter has a three-year lease, with an initial base rent of $45,000.

Fiddlehead School of Arts and Science in Gray, serving grades prekindergarten to 4 this year, is at capacity with more than 101 students from 17 districts, and has a waiting list of about 100 children.

Harpswell Coastal Academy, which serves students in grades 6-12, has about 200 students this year and will add 60-80 students per year for a full capacity of 120 middle school-age students and 160 high school-age students in the fall of 2016. This fall, it’s opening a satellite facility for its high school students at Brunswick Landing, formerly the Brunswick Naval Air Station, about 10 miles away. The school will pay rent of $48,000 a year for about 6,000 square feet of space.

 

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