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Blairsville-Saltsburg School District touts new virtual academy

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 4:46 a.m.

Blairsville-Saltsburg school officials say the district has saved $202,500 this year by enticing 19 students to enroll in the district's new virtual academy rather than seeing those pupils depart for outside cyber schools.

B-S is among a number of public school districts that have taken steps to establish their own online offerings to compete with independent cyber schools that have drawn away their students and collected subsidies from the traditional brick-and-mortar schools to pay for educating those students.

Jessica Pritts, a B-S guidance counselor who monitors the students enrolled in the Blairsville-Saltsburg Virtual Academy, said the new program has the capability of winning that competition because it offers students and their families more services than they could expect at a typical cyber school. If an additional 41 district residents who are enrolled in outside cyber schools were to switch to the virtual academy, the savings to the district could potentially increase to$572,000, she said.

Reporting on the academy program at Wednesday's school board meeting, Pritts said B-S is able to provide similar or better educational services compared to outside cyber schools plus at a lower cost than those schools charge. She said outside cyber programs may charge between $10,000 and $21,000 per student, while B-S figures it can provide online instruction a cost of just $2,500 to $3,500 per student.

In operation for only a few months, Pritts said, the B-S virtual academy is "really in its infant stages." But, she predicted, "It's going to explode. It has a long way to go."

One clear advantage of the virtual academy program versus outside cyber schools, she said, is that the online B-S students continue to be considered on an equal footing with any other district student attending traditional classes. As such, the virtual academy students can participate in the full range of extra-curricular programs offered at B-S, as well as taking part in field trips and assemblies and attending classes at the Indiana County Technology Center. They also could be considered for the district's dual enrollment option, which allows older high school students to attend some courses at participating universities for a portion of the school day. The district's advanced placement AP courses also are available through the new virtual academy.

The virtual academy provides plenty of opportunities for enrolled students to continue social interaction with their classmates in the traditional brick-and-mortar setting, Pritts said. "That's a big deal. They can get together with their peers."

She said as district students' needs change, they should be able to move between the traditional classroom setting and the virtual academy with little interruption in the educational process.

As it stands now

B-S Assistant Superintendent Ian Magness, who has been involved in developing the new virtual academy, noted that the district actually had a total of 34 students enrolled in the new academy so far this year, but six moved out of the district and nine opted to return to a brick-and-mortar setting.

He said the academy's online instruction is available for all grades from kindergarten to 12th grade. He noted there is currently a kindergarten student enrolled. At this point, enrollment is offered only to students who reside within the district.

Magness said the district is working with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit to train an initial group of 11 B-S high school teachers in strategies for conveying lessons online. "If anybody's going to teach our students in a cyber school environment, it's going to be our teachers," he said of the academy's goal.

In a letter to prospective virtual academy students, Magness noted that the program currently offers online courses provided by Lincoln Interactive and eAcademy, which are aligned to state and national academic standards.

While Magness noted some independent cyber schools' academic accountability has been called into question, Pritts said she provides frequent oversight of the students enrolled in the B-S virtual academy. Pritts, who also serves the district as a guidance counselor for students needing emotional support and those who attend ICTC, said she completes weekly progress monitoring of B-S virtual students and works with parents to provide personalized intervention for online students who may fall below 72 percent in academic grading. As with the district's brick-and-mortar programs, parents can go online to check on their student's progress themselves.

Several B-S school board members spoke enthusiastically about the promise of the new virtual academy.

"It's a new vision," said board President Ed Smith. "It's great for the district, and it puts the child back in an atmosphere where they should be."

Holly Gibson was impressed with the interventions offered for students who slip academically. "That's huge," she said.

She also pointed out that students enrolled in the virtual academy who complete academic requirements will receive the same diploma as do students who graduate after attending traditional classes. "Some colleges don't accept diplomas from cyber schools," she noted.

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