Pennsylvania school districts, cyber charters vie for students
Marci Klinger speaks with students about Gateway High School's cyber school during an Aug. 24 orientation meeting.
Principal David Martin walks through the offices of STREAM Academy, an online charter school that will offer in-person classes to its students at its Penn Center campus in Wilkins.
David Martin, principal of STREAM Academy, addresses the audience before a ribbon cutting. The online charter school has been revamped for this fall.
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No matter whether he turns left or right driving home from his Homestead office, Paul Cindric, curriculum coordinator for the new STREAM Academy Cyber Charter School, is bound to pass a huge billboard advertising a competitor.
"The competition is fierce," Mr. Cindric said.
This may be the most competitive year yet.
This fall, there will be 16 cyber charter schools trying to attract students from across Pennsylvania. Last school year, 13 cyber charter schools, one of which has closed, drew more than 32,000 students.
- Sunday: Popularity of full-time K-12 cyber programs grows.
- Monday: What happens during a cyber school day.
- Today: School districts, cyber charter schools compete.
Some of the state's 500 school districts that are home to these students will be fighting back.
Some school districts are adding their own full-time, online programs to win back cyber charter school students -- or at least stem the flow out -- and recapture the millions of dollars that have followed them.
The districts offer a personal contact, a district diploma and what some consider a better connection to district activities.
At the same time, some cyber charter schools are adding more opportunities for face-to-face instruction, ranging from in-person tutoring centers to periodic live science labs. They want to attract and keep students who want an online education but want at least some face-to-face contact.
"We do recognize that a one-size-fits-all educational program is probably a thing of the past," said Tammy Andreyko, assistant superintendent of academic advancement in North Allegheny, which is starting the North Allegheny Cyber Academy in grades 3 through 8 this fall.
With the new Pittsburgh Online Academy this fall, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials have been blunt that they are trying to win back cyber charter school students -- saving the district thousands of dollars per student -- by offering the district's own full-time program.
Pittsburgh is targeting students entering grades 6 through 12 because they would become eligible for Pittsburgh Promise postsecondary scholarships, making the switch more attractive.
About 60 students started last week, including about 20 who attended a cyber charter school last year and about a half-dozen who were considering such a school this fall.
Cyber enrollment tends to be fluid, so the numbers may grow as the year progresses.
In addition to its virtual learning coordinator and some other expenses, Pittsburgh is paying Waterfront Learning -- an arm of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit -- $3,500 a student for the total academic package, including curriculum, laptop, Internet access and teachers.
If a student were to choose a cyber charter school instead, it would cost the district about $13,000 for a regular student and about $28,000 for a special education student.
Under state law, home school districts must pay a fee set by the state for charter school students.
As is true in many of the other districts' cyber offerings, Pittsburgh's courses will be asynchronous -- not live -- and self-paced. While it is starting with Waterfront teachers, the district plans to transition to its own teachers by the third year.
About a third of school districts in Allegheny County are working with Waterfront Learning, now in its third year, on full-time online programs. Another third are buying single courses. Some nonpublic and out-of-county schools use Waterfront as well.
Last school year, Waterfront, which customizes courses so they fit in with a district's own program, provided 2,794 courses to 884 students, counting full- and part-time. It also provided 859 summer courses to 701 students.
Waterfront hires adjunct teachers for $17 per student per month. The teachers respond to students within 24 hours.
On top of Waterfront services, districts add their own personal touches, often orientation and a liaison who keeps track of a student's progress and makes extra contacts if a problem surfaces.
Deer Lakes, which had 13 in full-time cyber last year, requires its full-time online students -- so far, in grades 9-12 -- to physically report to school for four weeks to learn how best to work online. Students also can return to school for help.
In Pittsburgh, which began a three-day orientation last week, Mark McClinchie, coordinator of virtual learning, said he will work with families -- he makes house calls -- to provide extra intervention when needed, plans to have monthly parent meetings and is considering clubs and activities for the online learners.
In Gateway, entering the third year of a program for grades 9-12, cyber facilitator Marci Klinger said: "Some parents I talked to weekly; some I talk to almost every day when their children aren't doing well. My goal is for everyone to do well."
Some school districts develop their own courses, such as North Hills, which is expecting about 25 students in its full-time cyber program this fall.
North Hills started with summer school in 2008 and added a full online high school program in 2009-10, with courses developed by its own teachers, said Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs.
Teachers developed more courses to expand it to junior high. This fall, an option for elementary students has been added, using Waterfront.
In addition to full-time programs, some districts permit -- or are considering permitting -- students to take online courses along with the traditional program.
School districts are relative newcomers to online education compared with cyber charter schools, some of which are older than a decade. They generally use their own full-time teachers.
In Pennsylvania, cyber charter schools must offer a "significant" portion of their programs through the Internet or other electronic means. They cannot require students to attend in person, with some exceptions such as state testing.
For years, cyber charter schools have hosted open houses, graduation ceremonies, field trips and other events.
But Agora Cyber Charter School, which opened in 2005 for grades K-12 and had about 10,000 students last year, added a learning center in Philadelphia last year for 150 students and is opening another one this year.
Students in grades 3-12 attend three hours a day, four days a week for in-person help in online math and language arts work.
Other Agora students around the state who are having trouble can meet face-to-face with a teacher or one of 150 family coaches deployed statewide.
"A lot of our face-to-face efforts are to help that community building and relationship building so they do stay and get the most out of school," said Sharon Williams, head of school.
Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, which is based in Midland and expects 11,500 K-12 students this year, has offered field trips since it began and later added social events for parents and students and an ArtReach program with in-person arts classes.
At various centers across the state, PA Cyber offers "Clicks and Bricks" with an emphasis on tutoring. In Philadelphia and the North Side, it offers a daily study environment Monday through Friday. Other centers offer it on a schedule.
At the quiet East Liberty office this summer, high school senior Jerry Cain of Lincoln-Larimer said a traditional school is too distracting, but he likes being around people at the center.
"I get my best learning," he said.
For five years, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit operated the K-12 Pennsylvania Learners Online Cyber Charter School, known as PALO, which largely used live online classes developed by its own teachers.
This fall, it has become STREAM, which stands for science, technology, research, engineering, arts and math.
In addition to the live online classes, STREAM is offering all of its students -- now nearly 360 -- regularly scheduled, face-to-face classes at Penn Center in Wilkins.
Students will work on modules, using scientific equipment they can take home to continue their explorations.
Elementary students will be able to go for a full day once a month; middle and high school students will have classes twice a month. The classes will be streamed on the Internet for those who can't get there.
Teacher Ruth Campet said PALO students developed friendships in the cyber classrooms.
But with the in-person classes, she said, "I think their relationship will be even stronger."
First Published September 4, 2012 12:00 am