Pittsburgh Public Schools may start its own online school serving grades 6-12 as a way to win back students who have chosen cyber charter schools.
"We've got to start being competitive," Jerri Lynn Lippert, district chief academic officer, told the school board at an education committee meeting Tuesday night.
While she said the district is ahead in some areas, she said, "This one we're trailing behind, and we need to start catching up very quickly."
The reason is cyber charter schools are costing the district big bucks. The district must pay $13,000 for each resident who is a regular charter school student and $28,000 for each resident who is a special-education student at a charter school.
In the 2011-12 school year, charter school students are estimated to cost the district more than $45 million for about 3,125 students, including $11 million for 789 students who attend cyber charter schools.
The school board is being asked to vote June 27 on a plan that would begin this fall.
The plan calls for contracting with Waterfront Learning, which is a service of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, for a "turnkey" operation the first year, including teachers, hardware, software and access to more than 300 courses.
Waterfront would charge the district $3,500 for each online student, thus costing the district less than if the student went to a cyber charter school.
In the second year, Waterfront would help the district train its own teachers on how to educate online. By the third year, the instruction would be provided by district teachers.
Ms. Lippert said a memo of understanding is being finalized with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. A six-member committee of PFT and district representatives would be set up to make design decisions.
Online students would be able to go to the Greenway building board headquarters for orientation, testing and extra help.
The idea is to attract back resident students who aren't in district schools. The highest priority for recruitment would be the 250 students who will be in grades 6-9 in the fall who are now enrolled in a cyber charter school.
If they enrolled in the district's online school, they could become eligible to earn Pittsburgh Promise scholarships for postsecondary education of up to $10,000 a year if they meet certain requirements.
The district would not be doing targeted recruitment for students already enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools, and a process and safeguards for handling transfers to the online school from other district schools would need to be worked out.
A tentative budget showed the district could have a net savings of $891,294 a year if 100 students enrolled or $1.9 million a year if 200 enrolled, counting the cost of the district's coordinator of virtual learning.
In 2000-01, just 30 city residents enrolled in cyber charter schools. In recent years, the number has been growing about 10 percent a year, and costs have increased by more than that because the partial state reimbursements have been discontinued.
At this pace, Ms. Lippert said, the cost of cyber charter schools to the district could reach more than $18 million a year in 2016-17.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955. First Published June 13, 2012 12:00 AM