As virtual schooling options grow, programs mature and offer alternatives for many students

virtual-maineA typical school day for Maggie Mader looks a little different from the kind most people picture.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Maggie, a 16-year-old competitive horseback rider, gets ready for her hour-long biology class. But her classroom is her pink bedroom, where the walls are decorated with trophy ribbons and a shelf over her desk is lined with textbooks and notepads. Pulling on a headset, Maggie boots up her school-issued desktop computer and logs in to Roger Young’s biology class.

While most students would then go on to other classes in other subjects, perhaps hit the cafeteria for lunch or participate in an after-school activity, Maggie is headed for the stables, where she keeps her two horses, for a four-hour workout there.

Maggie is a sophomore at Maine Connections Academy, the state’s first virtual charter school, which opened in September after a two-year struggle to meet state charter commission requirements. Today the school enrolls 300 students in grades 7-12 from around the state.

Supporters say virtual schools, in which students receive lessons at home by computer, learning on their own schedules, are good for those who may find traditional schools an imperfect fit, from top athletes in intense training to students who have been bullied.

(Next page: Virtual schooling’s evolution)