News story: Micaela Wagner is one of a growing number of Cumberland County students who find that cyber charter school is a better fit for them.
Micaela Wagner of Carlisle prefers to attend the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School which allows her the freedom of studying on her own time and progressing at a speed that she is comfortable with. (Sentinel photo)
The Sentinel - cumberlink.com
Pa. experts debate value of cyber charter schools
August 26, 2012 9:00 am • Joseph Cress, The Sentinel
It got to the point where Micaela Wagner wanted to swap one “clique” for another.
Never a big fan of the traditional classroom, the Carlisle girl was annoyed by the groups of students who used to tease and torment each other.
Along with that, tuition at the Christian academy was getting to be too steep for her family and the demand for transportation to and from the private school conflicted with her mother’s work schedule.
So the family decided in 2008 to enroll Micaela in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Today, the 16-year-old girl pursues her future, one lesson at a time, with just a “click” of a laptop touch pad.
As students across Cumberland County gear up this week for the first day of school, Micaela will complete her summer list of online courses in preparation for the 11th grade cycle of class offerings that start up in September.
A part-time dog walker and neighborhood babysitter, she is one of a growing number of students who would rather learn over the Internet than in a bricks-and-mortar school.
What Micaela likes is the ability to customize her education to her learning style. She prefers “self-paced” courses that allow her to work alone, completing assignments in chunks of time that fit into a flexible daily schedule.
“I’m not a morning person,” Micaela explained. “I do my classes in the afternoon or evening.”
While “self-paced” courses allow students to log in whenever they want, “virtual classroom” courses require students to log in together during certain set periods of time in order to interact with the instructor and classmates.
Micaela said she would rather not wait around for other students to catch on to concepts she already mastered. By going with the “self-paced” format, she can work ahead of other students her age, especially those tied to traditional education who have to wait until fall for the next round of courses to come available.
The transition to cyber school was a challenge at first.
“Micaela needed to develop the discipline to focus,” her mother Lori Atwood said. “Now she realizes she alone is responsible for her education.”
Since its start in 2000, PCCS has grown by about 1,000 students per year with enrollment expected to reach 11,500 throughout 2012-2013, said Fred Miller, communications coordinator for the Beaver County based charter school.
“The traditional school has not worked for them,” Miller said. “There are as many reasons for students to enroll in cyber schools as there are students.”
They range from high achievers in search of stepped-up challenges to troubled youth seeking an escape from bullying, drugs, cliques and the “school of hard knocks,” Miller said.
No matter who they are or where they come from, money that used to go to their home school district now follows these students to the cyber charter school.
Local districts have responded by forming their own cyber schools or joining forces with the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in an attempt to not only recapture some of this lost money, but to also build on the potential that online technology has for a “hybrid” or “blended” approach to education.
Carlisle Area School District has been offering cyber courses for more than 10 years now, according to Superintendent John Friend said.
“We’ve been able to sign some of the students back,” he said.
Friend added, aside from money, it’s an issue of quality, noting that many cyber schools do not meet the same standards to which districts are mandated to adhere.
“They have not performed well from an achievement perspective,” said Rich Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District.
Fry explained how 11 of the 13 cyber school districts chartered in Pennsylvania missed the annual yearly progress criteria set down by the state Department of Education.
Big Spring is one of the founding members of the online learning academy operated by the CAIU, Fry explained. He added that academy has been able to provide a quality education at half the cost of the tuition amounts being forwarded on to the cyber schools.
In the case of Big Spring, cyber charter schools receive $9,300 for every regular education student and $22,000 for every special education student. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue to Big Spring, Fry said.
Membership in the IU academy has helped Big Spring to stabilize the situation.
“For the last two years, our numbers that are going to state-approved cyber schools have stayed constant in the 90-to-95 student range,” Fry said.
South Middleton School District has decided to wait until summer 2013 to offer online courses, according to Dr. Fred Withum III, assistant superintendent. Although the school board heard a presentation this spring from an IU representative, they tabled the matter to give administrators time to study options.
“We wanted to take a step back and look at the program that would be the most effective for our kids,” Withum said. “If we do our own cyber school, we have to account for child attendance and make sure parents know how well their child is progressing. Who is going to call the family if the child does not log on in three days?”
Each student enrolled in PCCS is assigned a state certified teacher whose job is to provide a time schedule and other oversight to make sure the student stays on track, Miller said. He added “virtual classroom” courses have procedures in place where the students have to perform a task at random intervals to make sure they stay at their computer while logged on.
Digital hookey aside, districts like South Middleton also have to determine how to provide intervention services to cyber school students, Withum said. “Just because you go to school digitally doesn’t mean there are no bumps in the road.”
Of the school districts surveyed, a common theme was to emphasize how important it is for a cyber student to earn a diploma from a home school district as opposed to a cyber charter school.
“We want students who live in the Big Spring School District to be Big Spring graduates,” Fry said. “We are proud of what we have to offer and want to work with families to provide a blended curriculum.”
The school administrators interviewed agree that combining elements of a digital education with the traditional school model can open up opportunities for students who choose to take online courses while staying with their home district.
While cyber schools represent a legitimate source of competition, there are certain things they can not provide, Withum said. One example is the experience of learning a science by experimenting in a lab.
The administrators also mentioned how important lessons in community service, leadership and socialization can be learned from the interactions that go with being immersed in a traditional school culture.
While Miller acknowledged that cyber schools lack this level of interaction, he added some families prefer the digital model because it protects their children from the bad influences of the “school of hard knocks.”
Miller said that cyber school may not be the same as regular school, but there are fewer problems with discipline, plus some opportunities for social events including family outings and formal dances. He added many of the cyber families are involved in sports and other activities through a local church or community group.
There is consensus among Miller and the school administrators that online courses are an important part of the future of education and offer a broad array of opportunities.
“We can bring the resources of the world,” Miller said. For example, FCCS offers a course on the Italian language taught by a native speaker living in Italy.
“What we have been doing is a blended schedule of courses that allow students to work through a program while getting them ready to get a Carlisle High School diploma,” Friend said.