Pittsburgh cyberschool making tweaks amid turnover

District set to expand grade offerings

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In their first year of operating their own online school, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials learned what many cyber charter school operators already know: There is lots of student turnover.

While the Pittsburgh Online Academy has had 144 students in grades 6-12 since it opened last fall, only 47 are still enrolled. That includes only 17 of the original 55.

"I think it has to do with fit," said Mark McClinchie, district coordinator of virtual learning. "I think in Pennsylvania we're in an environment where we've oversold the idea of online learning, and this is coming from someone who runs one."

He said those who fare best are independent learners with home support.

"The average kid belongs in our bricks-and-mortar schools," he said.

Pittsburgh started the cyberschool in large part to attract students from cyber charter schools that were costing the district millions.

The district plans to continue, improve and expand its own online offering this fall.

The school board is expected to vote Wednesday on adding grades 4 and 5. Next month, it will be asked to vote on improvements in the program.

"The earlier we would get them, the likelihood they're going to stay in Pittsburgh Public Schools -- either online or bricks-and-mortar -- is greater," said Jerri Lynn Lippert, chief academic officer.

Home school districts pay a fee set by the state for each resident enrolled in a charter school. Pittsburgh pays $13,058 for each regular student and $28,330 for each special education student, significantly more than for the district to provide the service itself.

In 2011-12, district payments to cyber charter schools totaled $11 million.

Some changes were made in the district's program after the year began, and some changes for next fall are being designed.

Partway through the year, for example, Mr. McClinchie created a virtual principal's office to better monitor students' work and provide quicker solutions to problems.

The district purchased curriculum and teachers through Waterfront Learning at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit this year.

Some students have found the curriculum not engaging enough, so the district is considering another offering from Waterfront or another vendor.

Many of the Waterfront teachers have day jobs and do not answer student emails until later.

"The feedback I'm getting from students is they often feel isolated. They feel they're doing all of their work without a lot of support," Mr. McClinchie said.

Next year's plans, still under development, call for students to have a daily homeroom, live support by their teacher of record for two to three hours a day and written, specific feedback on their work within 24 hours. Tutoring would be provided around the clock through tutor.com.

Currently, students who are in intervention are required to work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Next year, plans call for students to be permitted to have flexible hours only after they successfully complete nine weeks of working 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

As the school moves forward, Ms. Lippert expects the school to go toward a more hybrid model that is not just online or not just in-person.

"We do envision in the next couple of years not having the two extremes," she said.

Up to six of Pittsburgh's own teachers -- at the extended day rate of $2,900 each -- may begin training in the online model this school year and would be the teachers of record for 2014-15, which Ms. Lippert said would give the district more flexibility.

When the school opened, students were required to attend orientation in person at the Greenway building for three days. That has been expanded to two weeks, which staff recommends continuing in the fall.

While only mandatory face-to-face support was available at the beginning, that is being expanded to include voluntary support as well.

Students now work at home with the exceptions of orientation, testing and interventions, but Greenway may be available for daily drop-in support in the fall.

One attraction for the district's online school was that, unlike those attending cyber charter schools, students could become eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships.

In the first semester, less than 10 percent of the online students were meeting the academic and attendance requirements to be eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarships.

District officials believe an "improved personalized delivery model" would boost that number to above 50 percent.

"We're not satisfied with the achievement, which is why we're proposing the changes," Ms. Lippert said.

Despite its new online school, there are still more than 800 city residents currently attending 10 cyber charter schools, with the largest number, 392, at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

The Pittsburgh Online Academy has attracted students from a variety of places.

Of the 144 students who attended the Pittsburgh Online Academy at some point this school year, 104 of them transferred from a city district school, 20 from a charter school, eight from a private school and five from home school. Five were new to the district, and two were from dropout recovery.

Of the 97 who have withdrawn, 71 returned to a city district school, eight went to a charter, eight moved outside the district, seven dropped out, two went to private school and one went to home school.

While it is only anecdotal from counselors, Mr. McClinchie said, "Most went back with a renewed sense of commitment that the grass was not greener on the other side."

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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