Virtual learning – like school, but different

Virtual learning – like school, but different

Sixteen-year-old Maria Christian is not one to slack off. Self-motivated and articulate, Christian, who is a student at Maine Connections Academy, describes herself as a “pretty responsible person.”

“I don’t like to get behind so I don’t have trouble staying on track. At Maine Connections we have specific assignments and deadlines,” said Christian, who will be a junior in the fall. “The work is pretty challenging. It is harder than my old public school.”

Maine Connections Academy, a public school for Maine students in grades 7-12, opened its virtual doors in September 2014. It is the first online charter school approved by the state.

“We completed our first year on June 19. We had 265 students and for the majority of the year had a 100-person waiting list,” said Karl Francis, principal and head of school for Maine Connections Academy, which is located in South Portland. “We are a tuition-free public charter school with students from Kittery to Fort Kent.”

Christian is a native of Eliot and lives with her parents, Summer and Eric Christian, and two siblings, ages 15 and 7, who both attend a traditional public school. Christian did, too, until leaving Marshwood High School half way through her freshman year.

“I turned to virtual learning because I was being bullied at my high school and I couldn’t stand how the kids treated each other,” said Christian. “There was cruelty and nastiness, especially toward learning disabled or special needs students. I couldn’t stand it.”

Summer Christian said the family tried to work through it but it became too much for her daughter, who withdrew from school on the recommendation of her mental-health care provider.

“When she left Marshwood it had gotten so bad we were afraid for her mental health,” said her mom. “It took the rest of the year for her to recover and find herself.”

Christian has a learning disorder but is also a gifted student with high test scores. She said she just considers herself “a person.”

Christian enjoys Maine Connections because “everyone is here because they want to be. No one judges you because of the way you look.”

Social interaction at the school takes place both virtually and in person, which has been refreshing for her.

“I made a friend through the chat box at school. I met her in person on a field trip. When I saw her she wasn’t what I had pictured in my mind,” said Christian. “She was so fashionable I would probably not have felt like I could go up to her in the traditional high school social setting.”

Christian finished her first year of high school through Laurel Springs, an online private secondary school located in California. It was hard because of the time zone difference and the inability to see the teachers.

“We found Maine Connections, which had just started, as my family was looking for an alternative to Laurel Springs,” said Christian. “Maine Connections has been a better fit because I see my teachers and have gotten to know other students. There’s more involvement at Maine Connections.”

Summer Christian said the school has been great for her daughter.

“This last year she was a different person, happier, more confident and able to be herself,” she said. “It is wonderful to have the virtual learning option.”

Francis said teachers and staff “feel strongly about quality and rigor” of the academy’s system, which provides opportunities for individualized support and instruction for students.

“We look at the whole student,” said Francis. “Generally our students are self-motivated and self-engaged. It also takes teamwork with the parent or guardian at home to facilitate.”

As with the state’s other public schools, Maine Connections Academy is governed by a local school board. It has certified teachers and an accredited curriculum, which is contracted through Connections Education, a provider of virtual education for students in grades K–12 and part of Pearson, a global learning company.

“We are hired and fired by our local school board as are public schools. We just look a little different,” said Francis, who has a degree in education along with a master’s in counseling. He is also certified in Maine as a K-12 building administrator.

During the first year of operation, Maine Connections Academy was dealing with 86 different school districts across the state for funding.

“We had to bill each separately. But that has shifted for next year. Now through legislation we will be funded directly from the state, which is a significant upgrade for us,” said Francis, of what should be a less cumbersome process for the school.

As to the academic aspect of virtual learning and the fear that students may be at a disadvantage when it comes to college consideration, Francis said there has been no concern with admissions offices the school has worked with.

“Our students are extremely successful, engaged and doing well,” said Francis. “Their transcripts are on par and respected and will allow them to get into any college or university.”

According to Maine Connections Academy, graduates of schools supported by Connections Education curriculum have been accepted to leading institutions in the United States and abroad, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Cornell.

Of the six students who graduated from Maine Connections in 2015, one will enter the Air Force and another has been offered a job with a music production company. The remaining four will go on to college, two in the University of Maine system, one on a full music scholarship to Plymouth State, while the fourth will attend Thomas College with a $40,000 merit award.

Jackie Hayes is the manager of counseling services at Maine Connections Academy. Hayes’ role is to help students with personal and social skill development, along with career and college readiness. She said her favorite part of the job is “interacting one on one with students and in small and large groups, which largely takes place over the phone and during weekly live lessons. We travel to students as needed. We also get out on field trips, do college visits and spend time with students in the office.”

Hayes said much like their counterparts at a traditional public school, online students who are dedicated, present every day and working through their lessons are successful.

“The biggest difference is the teachers are also reaching out to students. Our teachers have more interaction with parents and get to know the students and their family,” said Hayes, who added that parents are required to be involved. “There’s more interaction between everyone. It forms a tripod of support. We’re looking over data all the time, finding ways to challenge or enrich, or help improve skills. Teachers are talking to parents. Everyone is checking in with each other.”

Hayes also said teachers in the virtual setting don’t have to spend as much time on behavioral and discipline issues as those in the traditional setting.

“We provide opportunities for positive socialization online,” said Hayes. “If negativity crops up we address it immediately.”

Francis said while virtual learning is not for everyone, it does work well for many.

“Our students are those who prefer to work this way,” he said. “There are students who are physically unable to go to school, and home-school families who appreciate the accredited curriculum. Others might have anxiety in a large group. We also have students who are sensitive to schedule so a traditional time frame doesn’t work.”

Francis said students with time issues include musicians, dancers and performers who may be on the road, or high-achieving athletes who need to train.

Maggie Mader is both. The 16-year-old show-jumping champion travels to competitions throughout New England and elsewhere with her horse, Elijah, a Dutch Warmblood.

“I chose Maine Connections Academy because it offered the opportunity for a flexible schedule that could work with my sport and my life,” said Mader, who is going into 11th grade. “Attending MCA gives me the opportunity to decide when and where to get my work done.”

That is not to say students don’t have to put time in every day on their schoolwork. Francis said there are live lessons that students log in to at a dedicated time.

“There is work to be done each day and lessons presented in each content area. Teachers monitor students’ progress through calls, email, and live discussions,” said Francis. “The student’s responsibility is to work through the lessons, a minimum of five hours. But being virtual allows kids to access where they are comfortable and progress ahead or take extra time as needed.”

Mader lives in Scarborough with parents, Kim and Andrew Mader, and an older brother and sister. She was born in Tokyo, where her father was working at the time. The family moved back to the states when she was 6, the same year she started riding horses.

Mader has attended public school and has also been home-schooled by her mother.

“I went to Scarborough Middle School,” she said. “When I left I did some online classes combined with home-schooling until Maine Connections opened up.”

Kim Mader said the family realized something would need to change when her daughter reached sixth grade.

“Her riding was taking longer and longer. It’s a year-round sport. We knew what the challenges would be as she got older with more school work. She would end up in school all day, after school straight to the barn and then straight to homework. We’d never see her,” she said. “Home-school was a better fit so we went that route, but we were thrilled when MCA opened. It’s the best of both worlds: flexibility and real teachers. And there’s no waste of time getting back and forth to school or the time in between classes. Our older two went to (traditional) public school and are successful in college now. This is not a failure of the schools, which work for many, this just works better for Maggie.”

Mader found the first year at MCA exceeded her expectations.

“It was above what I expected. The teachers at MCA welcome you with open arms. When you have problems or questions they go above and beyond. They are so kind, helpful and very responsive; not a fake person behind a computer screen – someone you can really talk to,” she said. “I really appreciate that when you go online to your home page everything is right there in front of you. Your schedule, grades, assignments. It requires responsibility and is challenging but it is all right there, organized. It helped me to be able to plan far in advance.”

Kim Mader said MCA has helped her daughter make an important transition.

“Maggie has to manage her time and the demands of many different teachers. It’s an important part of growing up, dealing with different people and their expectations,” she said. “It has allowed me to step back and allowed her to develop that part of her life. And I get to be just her mom again.”

Both Mader and Christian have strategies for staying on task.

“I stay focused on my work by looking at what I have to do and plan. On Saturday or Sunday night I look at the schedule for the week ahead, both for my horse and school, and set deadlines for myself. ‘I’ll finish this by this day’ or ‘I’ll do this then.’ I have to get it done or the work just piles up,” said Mader.

Mader said that when she’s not in the competition season, she works at home, where both her parents work, as well.

“When I’m away I bring my work with me. It’s easy to have my laptop and do the work on the road,” she said. “The school offers lots of support.”

Christian said that although she gets up later than she did when she had to catch the bus, she starts her day between 8 and 9 a.m. and works until she’s done, which changes depending on the class schedule.

“Last year I had biology and American government. And my math teacher was great. I’m not as good at math but the teacher was really good,” said Christian. “I do my work in the living room. My mom is at home. I have responsibility to myself to do well for my family and for me. Do well and bring pride and stay on task. Sometimes I get distracted but then I work harder.”

She enjoys live lessons with her teachers, which give her an opportunity to ask questions and chat with other students. On the social side, Christian takes part in the various activities MCA offers to help students interact.

“Each month we get together to go on a field trip,” said Christian. “And I did theater last year. This coming year I signed up for the Cyber Security Club. We’ll do simulations of cyber threats and how to protect against them. I don’t miss traditional public high school social interaction at all.”

Mader said her schedule doesn’t allow much time for interaction with other students at the academy, although MCA “offers a ton of field trips and events to get students together, including nationwide groups online.”

“I do socialize with the team at the barn where I train my horse, as well as the youth group at my church,” said Mader. “And I do interact in the classroom sessions. There are chat boxes and I have developed relationships with other students but have not met them in person. I have met all of my teachers in person, though.”

Hayes said the system at the academy teaches time management, but one of the main priorities is to build strong, positive relationships.

“We really do have a great group of students, welcoming and supportive of each other,” she said. “Many have had experience with less welcoming situations so they are the type of students that are more sensitive to being supportive.”

Francis said his staff of 18, which includes 14 teachers, a counselor and administrative staff, works hard to support students’ personal and academic growth which has a reciprocal impact on the school.

“We’re hiring six new teachers this year,” said Francis. “We have had 46 percent growth and are up to 396 students with a wait list of 50 or 60 right now.”

The pay scale for teachers at Maine Connections is a bit lower than traditional public schools in Portland, according to Hayes, but is comparable to the average for Maine.

Hayes said she loves coming to work every day.

“We have fun and all have the same focus on the students. Teachers and staff are positive, upbeat, and hardworking,” said Hayes. “It’s a great place to work and a great learning environment for our students.”

Both Mader and Christian are beginning to think about what comes after Maine Connections Academy.

“Post high school, I’m leaning toward the internship route for training horses,” said Mader. “There are opportunities in the field and I already have good connections. I’m building a name out there and building my resume.”

Mader said she is “quite an adrenaline junkie. Before we go into the ring I’m strategizing a faster way to get around the jumps. Learning to ride the best way you can is exciting.”

She did have Olympic thoughts but is working toward becoming a Grand Prix jumper, the highest level of show jumping under the International Federation for Equestrian Sports.

Christian said she wants to go to college, which will be in the traditional setting, not virtual.

“I’d like to do a lot of things but I’m thinking I might like to be a special education teacher,” said Christian. “I’d like to help in some way.”

Four of the five students from the first class to graduate from Maine Connections Academy celebrate their achievement. Photo courtesy of Burgess Advertising and Marketing. Maria Christian, 16, is entering her second year at Maine Connections Academy, an online public charter school for Maine students in grades 7 to 12. Courtesy photo.

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