Parents seeking to keep STREAM Academy cyber charter school
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When the board of the STREAM Academy cyber charter school voted in December to close its program as of June 30 after just four months of operation, officials blamed a projected budget deficit and low enrollment for the decision.
The closing means that 333 students will have to find a new school next year and 52 employees will lose their jobs.
But some parents whose children are enrolled in the cyber school have decided instead of looking for a new school, they're putting their energies toward saving STREAM Academy, which offered online and on-site learning as well as an emphasis on skills needed for the job market.
The parents contend that the STREAM board, which is made up of superintendents of 10 Allegheny County school districts or their representatives, voted to close the cyber school because it was competing for students from their districts.
"Our school board saw our school as too good of an idea," said Nancy Moskala, whose son is a fifth-grade student at STREAM.
Mrs. Moskala is part of a group of STREAM parents who plan to ask the cyber school's board at its meeting Thursday to step down to allow new board members to take over and continue to operate the school. They have been meeting in coffee shops and communicating via a Facebook page since receiving a letter dated Dec. 20 telling them the school would close.
"If they [the board] no longer want to do it that's fine. They can step aside, and we can find a different board," said Heather Yee, another STREAM parent.
Bethel Park superintendent Nancy Aloi Rose, who is chair of the STREAM board, said in a email that the closing of STREAM Academy "was a financial decision. There were simply not enough students enrolled to sustain the program."
She did not comment on the parents' request that the STREAM board resign to allow other board members to take over.
It's unclear whether it's possible to turn over the STREAM board to a new group, but the parents group is working with legal and education experts to determine how to do so.
Tim Eller, spokesman for the state department of education, said the resignation and selection of board members are not addressed by the state charter school law. But he said the education department would have to review any action of the board to rescind its earlier vote to close the school if that action is taken to determine "if it would be effective to continue the charter."
STREAM enrolled 333 students for the 2012-13 school year when it expected to draw 650 students, said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which operates STREAM.
She said an initial 2012-13 budget was prepared based on enrollment of 650 students, and then a revised budget was drawn up in August based on 400 students, a target that wasn't met.
As a result, projected revenues for the year are $4.23 million, but projected expenses total $5.79 million, Mrs. McCluan said. The projected deficit of $1.56 million will come from the school's $2 million fund balance.
STREAM parents argue it doesn't make sense to abandon the program after just four months. They point to money spent to set up the program, including $129,308 on equipment at the on-site center in Wilkins and $429,875 on advertising.
Mrs. McCluan said the equipment will be sold and the proceeds returned to any district that enrolled students in STREAM this year. Any fund balance will also be divided among the districts.
But members of the STREAM parents group say they are not giving up on the school, which has a 30 percent special education enrollment. A number of the families enrolled their students in STREAM's predecessor Pennsylvania Learners Online cyber charter school. PALO was founded in 2001 by 10 Allegheny County school districts as an alternative to other cyber schools operating in the state.
At the time, superintendents of those districts believed they could provide a more cost-efficient cyber alternative by reimbursing to their districts any surpluses that existed in the cyber program. However, after the school was formed, it was determined that state law did not allow money to be transferred from the cyber program to the school districts.
PALO continued to operate with several hundred students, but it did not make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined in the federal No Child Left Behind law on its scores on the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, which led to the development of the STREAM Academy.
The school drew its name from the fact that it was supposed to focus on science, technology, research, engineering, art and mathematics and was designed to help students develop an interest in skills that would be useful in the workplace.
Some of the parents who are fighting to keep STREAM open enrolled their children in PALO and transferred this year to STREAM. Both programs, they said, were effective because classes are taught in real time during an 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. school day. Other cyber schools, they said, don't offer all of their courses in real time and expect students to do some or much of their work on their own.
With STREAM, students gained the opportunity, if they chose, to attend class on-site at various times each month with their counterparts to participate in science experiments, gym, art and music classes.
Kevin Smochko, 14, an eighth-grade student at STREAM, who formerly attended PALO, said he enjoys the twice a month on-site days held for his grade.
"I like the whole idea of how STREAM Academy works," Kevin said. "I'm one of the active students who is trying to keep it open. I'm getting the word out there. I'm creating media for them to use, taking pictures for fliers and things we can present to the board about why we think STREAM should stay open."
First Published February 19, 2013 12:00 am