Cyber School Had Genesis Here: PA Cyber brought new life to depressed Midland and spawned an education alternative

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When Midland High School closed in 1986, the economically depressed steel town had 50 high school students. Until the mid-1990s, students from Beaver County's Midland community were bused to East Liverpool, Ohio.

Then Nick Trombetta came on as Midland Borough School District superintendent and decided to find a way to keep Midland students in Midland.

His approach was unconventional: Mr. Trombetta started the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in 2000, reasoning that it would give Midland students a way to stay in the community for their schooling.

That first year, officials expected to see 50 students from Midland enroll. Instead, more than 500 from 105 school districts registered to study through the charter school, which is open to students from across the state.

Fred Miller, a spokesman for the school, said at the time that no one at PA Cyber really knew how to run a cyber school -- in fact, no one anywhere really knew how to run a cyber school. So they improvised.

"We learned how to run a cyber charter school by actually running a cyber charter school," Mr. Miller said.

Ten years later, it's still running -- now with more than 11,000 students and nearly 700 employees.

The organization has poured millions of dollars into Midland, converting dilapidated city buildings into space for the school, from offices and classrooms to warehouses for textbooks and computers. The $23.5 million Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, a PA Cyber spinoff, was built in 2004 on the footprint of the old Midland High School.

The small town -- Mr. Miller aptly described Midland as "six blocks wide by 12 blocks long" -- is now at the center of a burgeoning cyber charter school movement.

PA Cyber has grown to become one of the largest charter schools in the country. But it has clung to the identity fostered during those early years; employees still call cyber classrooms "uncharted territory."

"I think in those early years, when we were just figuring out how to do this together in close quarters, we learned a lot," said Andy Petro, supervisor of virtual classroom teaching at PA Cyber. "Everyone did everything."

PA Cyber has faced criticism in recent years, including a grand jury investigation in 2007 over the allocation of funds. Each student's home school district pays a portion of what it would have cost to educate the student in a traditional school. PA Cyber was accused of using those funds improperly -- for expenses not related to each individual student.

The school has since rearranged its administration and funding system slightly, but the organization remains largely the same. Mr. Miller said most employees aren't fazed by that blip in the company history. And they aren't concerned with critics of online learning who say cyber classes don't connect with children in the same way traditional classes can.

At PA Cyber, the faculty and staff are staunch supporters of the charter school movement, defending a child's right to the education of his choice. And they believe online education offers opportunities for some students to learn in new and better ways than in a bricks-and-mortar school.

"I still don't think the rest of the education field understands what we do and how we do it," said Nicole Gianvito, director of the virtual classroom at PA Cyber.

Some classes are self-paced: Students are given assignments and complete them on their own timeline before submitting them to the instructor. But most classes take place in a virtual classroom, where the teacher posts materials for the class, the students post their responses and have discussions -- all in real time.

Teachers and officials at the school maintain that there is much less social pressure and distraction in a cyber classroom than in a traditional environment.

The kids are identified only by their first name and an ID number to add some degree of anonymity, and there's no note-passing or bullying -- the teacher can monitor all side conversations on the screen. Teachers say students are more willing to join in classroom discussions online.

There's a sense of camaraderie at PA Cyber that employees say revolves around an enterprising spirit that has survived over the years.

"There's this community culture where everyone has the freedom to make it the workplace they want it to be," Mr. Petro said. "If you think there's some support for your work, it's always going to improve it."

Of the 123 teachers at PA Cyber, around 75 percent are new college graduates, with the other 25 percent coming from positions at brick-and-mortar institutions.

Don Herron came after 30 years in traditional public schools. Shortly after he started, Mr. Herron made an offhand comment about college courses -- saying it made more sense to send kids to college than to have them take Advanced Placement courses, which only sometimes count for college credit.

The next thing he knew, he was the head of Advanced Placement Alternatives program at PA Cyber, which lets students earn college credits in high school.

"They put trust and faith in me," Mr. Herron said. "Instead of micromanaging me, they let me figure it out myself."

Teachers go through two weeks of training before the start of each school year, learning education techniques specific to the online format, as well as the technology involved.

They say they don't have many technological setbacks -- there are people on staff around the clock to deal with students who are having issues with their computers (which they receive from the school, along with textbooks, and a refund for their Internet access).

Employees are so enamored with the workplace dynamic at PA Cyber that they can't help but worry the positive atmosphere will dissipate over time, as the school grows.

"Obviously change has to happen with growth," said Annie Hudson, a virtual classroom teacher. "But the value and the way we want to come across has stayed the same. There's a persona at PA Cyber that we want to be the best."


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