Use of cyber, charter schools skyrockets

Comfortable learning environments for some

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Many districts have seen a dramatic increase in the number of students choosing cyberschools or charter schools.

The online classrooms provide a comfortable learning environment for victims of bullying, teen mothers, school-phobic students and those struggling to complete basic requirements. They also are popular with advanced learners seeking extra stimulation.

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But funding follows students to the charter school they enroll in, prompting some districts, including Highlands and North Hills, to create their own cyberschools to retain students and dollars.

Jeff Taylor, director of curriculum assessment and technology at North Hills School District, said, "The district has seen a 30 percent increase in charter school enrollment each year for two years, and the tuition [the district pays] is phenomenal."

District spokeswoman Tina Vojtko said North Hills' total cyber charter school costs for 2008-09 are estimated to be $649,831. Charter education costs the district $9,743 per year per traditional student and $18,646 per special education student.

Previously, North Hills students who needed to make up credits, called credit recovery, could take online classes through Community College of Allegheny County; but North Hills no longer accepts credit-recovery credits from outside agencies, said Mr. Taylor.

"We realized we could use our curriculum and our teachers, and have more control and higher quality online opportunities for our kids," he said.

North Hills piloted its Online Academy last summer with 20 students. It will continue this summer and into next school year.

Students who need to make up credits can choose from 16 classes. Those who wish to prepare for state assessment tests or get classes out of the way to free up time in their schedule can take health, standards of mathematics and standards of language arts. Students taking summer classes must pay them, Mr. Taylor said. There is no charge during the school year.

North Hills' online courses are developed and taught by district teachers. "We don't just throw any course out there. It's our curriculum, we know it is high quality and it's our teachers teaching the kids." The teachers receive a stipend to develop a course from scratch and a stipend to teach a summer course.

Students seeking unusual electives can take online courses, developed by North Hills or through a partnering school district or college, said Mr. Taylor. Senior Cameron Robinson, 17, West View, has taken classical mythology and online poetry.

He said that although it is difficult to be self-motivated, he is held accountable by having to complete weekly

assignments. Senior Michele Cooney, 18, Ross, usually finishes her world literature and world religion work during study halls on school library computers. "It teaches you responsibility, and that's how it will be in college. The teacher won't be there to hold your hand."

This fall North Hills' Online Academy will include electives, like those Cameron and Michele are taking. "Eventually we will have a consortium in which we'll share courses with other schools," said Mr. Taylor.

This fall, North Hills will share selected online classes with six area schools. Eventually students can cross-register for a number of classes, including advanced sciences and languages, such as Hindu and Mandarin.

Students in Highlands School District have had the cyberschool option for two years through In July, the district will begin a new contract with South Side-based Virtual Learning Network. Students can take summer classes or classes through the school year. The new, Highlands-based curriculum requires them to report to a district "homeroom" teacher, allows them to participate in district activities and requires teachers to perform regular assessments, said Walt Hanzlik, assistant principal at Highlands High School.

"VLN will develop online course that follow our timeline, our curriculum and the texts we're using," said Mr. Hanzlik.

"We found that with, students were not naturally motivated, so we had a hard time tracking their progress. With VLN they have to sign in every day, and the homeroom teacher sees them face to face on Webcam." Students and teachers discuss the progress of assignments, and there are weekly deadlines. "They have to prove they're keeping up," Mr. Hanzlik said, adding that students can still be charged with truancy.

Highlands' annual cost for Virtual Learning will be $33,100, which includes 50 passwords that can be recycled for another student if a student returns to traditional classes, and 30 customized Web-based courses. If four traditional students decide to use Highlands' cyberschool rather than go outside the district, the program will pay for itself.

Mr. Hanzlik said the district saves almost $9,000 per year for each traditional student and $18,000 per year per special education student who stays in the district.

"VLN has premade elective courses, such as foreign languages, arts and humanities, and technology," Mr. Hanzlik said. "Students will still do projects, especially multimedia projects. Science teachers feel it's imperative that students get lab experience, so we plan to offer after-school or weekend hours to do experiments."

This year, Highlands had 30 high school students in its online program. Mr. Hanzlik said between 60 and100 students districtwide went to other cyberschools.

Students attending outside charter schools have said that they missed interactivity with classmates, opportunities for hands-on experiences and participating in extracurricular activities, said Mr. Hanzlik.

Virtual Learning offers a homepage with information about district activities to keep cyber students involved in school life, he said.

"We have something to offer them.," he said of students taking district cyber classes. "They can walk across the stage with their classmates and receive a Highlands diploma."

Freelance writer Jennifer Kissel can be reached in care of .


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