Cash-strapped public school districts are constantly looking for new ways to maintain enrollment and compete with charter and cyber schools vying for their students.
In Beaver County, where enrollment has dropped 17.5 percent in 10 years, school administrators have gotten creative.
The county's 14 school districts and neighboring Elwood City in Lawrence County offer a program that allows high school students to take classes in other districts if courses are not available in their home school and it provides tuition, books and fees for courses at local universities.
The Regional Choice Initiative was funded in 2007 with a $10 million, five-year U.S. Department of Education grant. The Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit, which coordinates the program, received a one-year extension to continue it this year with funds remaining from the initial grant.
The grant runs out July 31, however, and the intermediate unit is looking for new ways to fund the program for next year.
"When you begin to eliminate the options that are available to kids, parents will say they offer this at that charter school or this cyberschool," said Thomas Zelesnik, executive director of the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit.
"It's a good program and it's helped a lot of children in Beaver County for credits, for second chances and for new options."
One success of the interdistrict system is Ambridge Area High School's ROTC program, which has enrolled 90 of the 400 students that take classes through the initiative.
Many of the ROTC students have disciplinary issues at their home schools.
They travel to Ambridge in an effort to get on track for graduation.
Others are looking for a niche or a chance to get ROTC experience before college.
"This is something for those kids, who aren't athletes or musicians, to belong to," said 1st Sgt. Carl Curtis, the instructor and a retired Marine.
"Everybody wants to belong to something."
Kalib Martin knew he wanted to be a Marine when he was 5 years old.
The 17-year-old Central Valley High School senior signed up for a first-period ROTC course at Ambridge his sophomore and junior years.
He was transported to the school by bus in the morning and taken back to his home school after the period ended.
But the brief experience left him yearning for more.
When Ambridge started a Leadership Academy, an offshoot of the ROTC program funded by the initiative that brings students to Ambridge for a full day, he signed up.
"It was perfect for me," he said.
As a commanding officer he leads a class of students, a position he says is teaching him the skills he needs to succeed as a Marine.
The program also has a long history of graduating seniors with full scholarships to ROTC programs at some of the top colleges in the county.
"I've never been a bad kid," Kalib said. "But this made me so much more confident and gave me an opportunity to lead my peers."
Mr. Zelesnik said the leadership academy is among many options for students the intermediate unit intends to preserve next school year with minor changes.
"I'm very proud of the fact that many superintendents have said, 'What did you do to those kids, because they are different when they come back to school?' " Mr. Zelesnik said. "It's giving kids an opportunity to become leaders. Sgt. Curtis wants them to be independent adults."
Many of the opportunities made available through the grant will continue due to forward thinking by the intermediate unit.
Prior to the announcement of the grant award in 2007, each of the districts were asked to contribute $15,000 to an escrow account to get the program off the ground. The money went unused and will be available next year.
With those funds and by decreasing the amount of money each district receives for a visiting student from $600 to $150, the option to take classes at different districts will continue. Online education is expected to continue with small changes.
The intermediate unit is also configuring bus routes and finding new ways to lower transportation costs and continue to deliver each student between districts.
"Our biggest problem is how to resolve an option for dual enrollment," Mr. Zelesnik said.
"The dual enrollment, which we spend about $400,000 on yearly, is going to be hard to replace."
Families likely will be asked to cover the cost of tuition, fees and books that were previously funded by the initiative, which can range as high as $800 to $900 a course at colleges like Penn State University. Some colleges have offered reduced tuition.
Local community colleges, such as Community College of Beaver County, have offered to make qualified high school teachers adjunct professors. The teachers will be given a curriculum for a college-level course and allowed to teach it at one of the high schools for around $100 per student. In this case, students receive college credit for a fraction of the cost.
On average, the grant award provided about $1.7 million for the initiative every year. By eliminating dual enrollment costs, reducing transportation costs, offering districts less money for visiting students, and cutting some professional development services for educators, the intermediate unit expects to continue the program at a significantly reduced cost.
Mr. Zelesnik said he believes the districts will want to continue the initiative because it has demonstrated innovative ways to provide more opportunities for students at a low price.
"The dollar value you get for what we can do under the RCI is quite significant as far as savings is concerned," he said. "Delivering instruction in different ways and using different options available to a school district has opened their eyes about what they can do with kids."
Taryn Luna: 412-263-1985 or firstname.lastname@example.org