Franklin Park home is a cyber schoolhouse

Second of a three-part series covering cyber schools in the Pittsburgh area

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On weekday mornings, school buses transporting neighborhood children to North Allegheny schools rumble up and down the Franklin Park street where the family of Jill and Rick Buffalini lives.

Instead of scrambling for buses, the Buffalini children sit comfortably with laptop computers inside their home, already deep into their school work for the day.

Choosing Cyber: Back to School

On one day, Christina was at the dining room table involved in an eighth-grade English lesson.

Fourth-grader Maria was settled in the family-room-turned-classroom off of the kitchen working on language arts and math lessons.

And high school sophomore Julia was on the living room couch finishing coursework for several classes.

The house was quiet and Mrs. Buffalini, a former special education teacher, monitored all of her children's work -- Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School requires a parent to be present -- but spent the most time listening in on Maria's lessons.

Moving from room to room in the Buffalini home is like walking from classroom to classroom in a school.

The Buffalini children attend school online as students of Midland, Beaver County-based PA Cyber, one of 16 cyber charter schools in the state and the largest with an enrollment of about 11,500 students statewide.

This scene, which took place in June, will be repeated when PA Cyber starts a new school year on Tuesday.

Absent will be Anna, who now is a freshman at Slippery Rock University and who completed her cyber work in early June. Her brother Anthony is a junior at Grove City College and also graduated from PA Cyber.

Julia, Christina and Maria take classes in a mixture of synchronous lessons in a virtual classroom where the teacher instructs in real time online and asynchronous courses in which the students work at their own pace and check in with a teacher periodically. About 60 percent of the courses taken by PA Cyber students are in a virtual classroom. Christina and Maria prefer being engaged with teachers in the synchronous classes, but Julia, who likes to work ahead, prefers to take as many asynchronous courses as possible.

Julia also attends some classes at La Roche College in McCandless through PA Cyber's dual enrollment program and hopes to graduate high school like her older siblings with 15 college credits.

For the Buffalinis, when cyber school became available about a dozen years ago, it was an obvious choice. Mrs. Buffalini already had started home schooling her two older children so they could be free during the day for volunteer work.

"It was really a character-based decision," Mrs. Buffalini said. Among Anthony's volunteer projects was organizing a picnic for homeless men on the North Side.

In addition, the cyber school offers the Buffalini children certified teachers in higher levels of math, science, foreign language and other subjects that Mrs. Buffalini knew she would not be able to teach as the children approached high school.

Although each child has been given the choice to attend public high school at North Allegheny, so far they have all chosen to remain in cyber school. With the evolution of the live virtual classroom, the Buffalini children can sit in their home but feel as if they are attending a class.

During a live virtual class, teachers use a webcam so students can see them teaching or communicate only by voice. They also can show related materials on the screen.

Attendance is recorded when a student logs in. For every student, the teacher can see an identification number and first name but not the actual student.

PA Cyber teachers learn how to make such instruction effective through two weeks of training, following by mentoring after classes start.

During science class, Christina could see her teacher Robert Puskas lecturing live to her 20 or so classmates.

Mr. Puskas uses emoticons to check if students are paying attention to his lessons. For instance, he may tell a silly joke and ask for a thumbs up or thumbs down from the students. When explaining a detailed concept, he may ask everyone who is listening to flash him a smiley face. Students can "raise their hands" to ask or answer questions by clicking on a hand icon on their screen.

From Mr. Puskas' desk at PA Cyber offices in Midland, he can see the hand icons from students flashing on his screen. He sometimes asks for responses to ensure that students are participating in class and not simply logging in and then walking away from the computer.

If he doesn't hear from a particular student for a period of time, Mr. Puskas can call on the student or send him a private message. A student who might be bashful about asking or answering a question in front of the class can send a private message to the teacher.

Mr. Puskas said participation in the virtual classroom runs pretty much along the same lines as a traditional classroom, with certain students answering frequently and some never answering. Mr. Puskas shuffles a stack of note cards with students' names and selects a name to answer questions in class.

It's also not unusual for Mr. Puskas or other teachers using the virtual classroom to break students into groups and assign them a problem or project to work on, monitoring each group via multiple screens on the teacher's computer. Then later in the class, each group reports its conclusions to the rest of the class online. The time and frequency of virtual classes vary.

Because Maria is in the elementary level, her class schedule follows closely that of a traditional school with classes running back to back from 8 a.m. until early afternoon with a short break for lunch. Her older sisters have more flexibility in their schedules, with classes sometimes offered several times a week for longer durations.

That flexibility gives the older girls more time for their sports schedules. Julia belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Girls hockey team, which requires lots of "stick time" at ice rinks, and she has played softball for North Allegheny.

Anna played soccer for North Allegheny. Christina also plans to try out for North Allegheny teams, and Maria plays in the municipal soccer league.

"My friends from soccer think you are anti-social if you attend cyber school. But you can still do sports and go to dances," Christina said.

Julia appreciates the efficiency of cyber education. Because she works at her own pace, she finishes more quickly than most traditional students would. She finds herself restless when she attends college courses at La Roche, waiting for other students to grasp concepts and taking notes. In her cyber classes, she can simply print the screen rather than writing the material in a notebook.

Julia said she doesn't feel that she's missing out on anything by attending cyber school. "I have a lot of good friends from softball, and I have church friends and neighborhood friends. A lot of my friends say you are lucky to be home-schooled, so much time is wasted going to our lockers and I don't have to deal with all the drama," Julia said.

Teachers at PA Cyber hold office hours in addition to their classroom time, and some of the Buffalini children have taken advantage of that. Both Maria and Christina have had online tutors assist them in their classes when they struggled.

"Christina had a one-on-one person sitting with her in class. She could communicate with her to help her through and no one else knew it. The ultimate goal is for her to be able to learn independently," Mrs. Buffalini said.

Cyber education has some limitations. There are no hands-on science labs, though teachers can show virtual labs on the screen. For physical education classes, students are required to take part in a certain number of supervised physical activities, with parents signing forms to verify that they have done so. PA Cyber provides in-person classes in music, theater, dance, voice and fine arts through its ArtReach program at satellite offices and educational support centers. It also works on a case-by-case basis with private arts organizations to provide courses.

All classes are recorded and archived so students and parents can view them after class in case they want to review the content if they miss class.

Mrs. Buffalini said her family likes the flexibility cyber school has allowed and doesn't believe that her children have missed out academically or socially.

"Our kids really have had the social interactions that people worry about. They have different social interactions because they are with older people and younger people, not in a classroom with all the same age people all day," Mrs. Buffalini said.

"We tried to have our kids work with and understand a lot of different people."

education - region

Mary Niederberger:; 412-263-1590.


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