AUGUSTA — Touring Maine Virtual Academy is not like touring other schools.

There’s no chalk dust, books or sounds of locker doors slamming.

There are cubicles, offices, conference rooms and file cabinets of the kind you could find in any office building.

On Tuesday, board members, teachers and administrators celebrated the academy’s new facility in the Ballard Center and the opening of the virtual charter school — the state’s second — which earned a go-ahead in February from the Maine Charter School Commission.

“This is so exciting and so heartening to see,” said Judith Jones, chairwoman of the Maine Association for Charter Schools.

Because the school, which is public, is operated online, students in grades 7 through 12 from across the state can enroll and pursue their education.

As of Tuesday, the enrollment was 288, up from 277 on Oct. 1. The school’s enrollment is capped at 297. Beth Lorigan, chief executive officer of the academy, said once that point is reached, prospective students will go on a waiting list. Enrollment is likely to fluctuate, as some students may decide to return to their former schools and other students may opt to give the virtual academy a try, Lorigan said.

Daniel Weeks, who teaches the upper-level mathematics classes, said the education is student-centered; they control their own learning. Weeks meets virtually with his students once a week for hourlong classes, and he meets with them individually if they need more help or explanation. During classes, he can poll students to see whether they understand the concepts being taught, and they can ring in with questions or register their comprehension via emoticons.

“It’s been a learning curve for students,” he said.

And it’s been a learning curve for teachers. Like students in traditional schools, virtual academy students take science classes with laboratories. But rather than conduct experiments at home without benefit of laboratory safety equipment, they can do many experiments virtually or with laboratory packs that are provided to them.

“There are ways to take the data without mixing the chemicals,” teacher Paul Sasso said. Students use computers to click and drag to simulate experiments. Coming from a brick-and-mortar school, Sasso said he and other teachers were skeptical. “But they still crunch numbers and graph the data.”

The school, which contracts with the Virginia-based K12 Inc. for academic services, has 11 teachers, two of whom are special education teachers and one of whom is a guidance counselor. Lorigan said she’s still looking for a special education director.

Lorigan, who came to the charter school after serving as a school superintendent, a special services director and a teacher, said even though the classes are virtual, she and other staff members interact with students and parents when they travel the state to proctor tests.

“We want the parents and students to tell us what’s working for them and what’s not,” she said.

Maine has two virtual charter schools and five brick-and-mortar charter schools. Maine officials have imposed a cap of 10 charter schools through 2021.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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