City schools take on cyber rivals with Pittsburgh Online Academy 6-12
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The Pittsburgh Public Schools board has approved a new school, a full-time online program aimed at competing with cyber charter schools that have been draining students and money from the district.
The board Wednesday voted to open the school -- now known informally as the Pittsburgh Online Academy 6-12 -- this fall with the goal of targeting at least some of the 789 residents who attend cyber charter schools.
The new school was packaged with a series of other resolutions that the board unanimously passed, although board member Mark Brentley Sr. expressed opposition.
Unlike other public schools that have created their own cyber schools, the Pittsburgh district has a significant incentive for students to transfer into its online academy: Students enrolled in the program will qualify for college scholarship funds from the Pittsburgh Promise.
Students who spend all four years in a city public or bricks-and-mortar charter high school can receive up to $30,000 toward postsecondary education. Those who are in city schools from kindergarten through 12th grade are eligible for up to $40,000.
Until now, there has been no full-time online program that offered the Pittsburgh Promise.
Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril said he believes the opportunity to get Promise funds will draw city students to the district's online academy. "I hope that so many kids flood back to our schools that my fundraising work quadruples," Mr. Ghubril said.
Mark McClinchie, coordinator of virtual learning for the Pittsburgh schools, also believes city students enrolled in cyber schools will be interested in transferring to the district's online academy.
"We talked with [cyber school] families preliminarily and told them we were exploring an online academy and a lot of families expressed a lot of interest in the Promise," said Mr. McClinchie, a former principal at Pittsburgh Weil Pre-K-5.
Board President Sherry Hazuda said the new program is an opportunity "to recapture some of our kids from other cyber schools" while also making them eligible for the Promise.
For the school district, one of the big incentives is saving money. Pittsburgh pays cyber charter schools about $13,000 for each resident who is a regular student and about $28,000 for each special education student.
Ms. Hazuda said the district would "save $9,500 for each student who stays with us."
The initial marketing will target 250 students in grades 6-9 now enrolled in cyber charter schools. Superintendent Linda Lane said she anticipates about 100 students enrolling in the first year.
For the first year of the academy, the district will use Waterfront Learning, which is operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, to provide the program, including access to more than 300 courses, instructors, software, hardware and connectivity. By the third year of operation, the district plans for the academy to have its own teachers, Mr. McClinchie said.
Waterfront Learning will charge the district $3,500 per student and will charge only for the number enrolled. Pittsburgh also estimates more than $140,000 in other expenses, much of that for the coordinator of virtual learning.
Waterfront Learning already has contracts with more than 50 school entities serving about 900 students across the state during the school year, according to Denise Decheck, Waterfront program director. A year earlier, it had just 325 students.
The total includes 10 school districts which offer a full-time high school program to about 200 students using Waterfront.
She said Pittsburgh is the only one to set up a separate online school which will be accountable for meeting performance standards under No Child Left Behind. The other programs are included as part of their high schools.
Mr. McClinchie said the Pittsburgh Online Academy 6-12 will be operated as the district's 54th school. "We are a full-time stand alone school. We just happen to deliver our instruction online," he said.
Among other districts using Waterfront is Gateway, where spokeswoman Cara Zannella said that this past year five of the 50 students enrolled had returned to the district from cyber charter schools.
There is no cap on the number of city students the Pittsburgh online academy will enroll, Mr. McClinchie said. Students will receive a laptop and air card for wireless Internet connection and classes will be offered on an asynchronous basis, which means students will work at their own pace under the supervision of a teacher.
"Teachers will monitor student performance very, very closely and they will intervene to help the student when necessary, The real advantage is that teacher interaction is all one-on-one," Mr. McClinchie said. Students and teachers will communicate via email, Skype, chat rooms and telephone.
Ms. Decheck said districts are turning to cyber programs to try to stem the loss of money and students to cyber charter schools and to meet the needs of children who are choosing to leave the traditional environment.
"Education is competitive, and it is becoming a business ...." said Ms. Decheck. "You have to market and find a way to communicate to the kids and families there's a reason for them to come back."
More than bringing students back, Ms. Decheck said, the online programs offered in districts is helping to stem the flow of students to cyber charter schools.
"As soon as kids and families express the desire to want to seek a cyber program, the district can say, 'You don't have to leave; we have that now,'" she said.
With the potential for students to earn Promise scholarships, she said, "I think that ultimately Pittsburgh Public Schools is in an excellent position to bring kids back, to expand their offerings, to address some of their weaknesses."
Waterfront's charge for a full-time online program ranges from $3,500 a student for asynchronous learning, meaning the classes do not take place at a particular time, to $5,600 a student a program with live online classes at specific times.
Waterfront purchases the curricula from outside vendors and makes some changes to make it fit Pennsylvania standards. Pittsburgh has chosen the e2020 curriculum.
Ms. Decheck said the systems track students when they log in, how many activities they complete and how much idle time they have between assignments and submission.
Teachers are expected to communicate directly with students -- preferably via telephone or Skype -- and to answer student emails or grade student work within 24 hours.
Waterfront uses adjunct teachers, most of whom teach full-time elsewhere. The teachers don't do lesson plans, and some of the online tests are automatically graded, although open-ended questions and journals are hand-graded.
Teachers are paid $17 a month per student during the school year, with a cap of 50 active students a month.
First Published June 28, 2012 12:00 am