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Cyber program at Seneca Valley created out of necessity

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
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Jonathan Asseff was the May 2013 Cyber Student of the Month. He took honors chemistry, Flash game development and game design online through the cyber program.

More than 10 years of battles to keep local students from transferring to cyber charter schools has led Seneca Valley School District to fight back.

Nearly 200 Seneca Valley students have enrolled in cyber charter schools in each of the past five years, which has cost the school district more than $7.3 million in tuition to these schools.

The district's seven-year-old cyber program has prompted some students to return to the district, which offers part-time, full-time or hybrid workloads for students.

“Each year the costs for (Seneca Valley) were increasing and increasing, so we made the decision to start our own cyber program to try to stop the bleeding,” said Matthew McKinley, assistant superintendent of secondary instruction.

“We were able to do that, and now we're gaining students back.”

Cyber charter schools are publicly funded, privately-run online schools.

Districts use tax dollars to pay a per-student fee to charter schools.

For each student that attends a charter school, Seneca Valley pays $8,000.

If that student is in an individualized education program, that cost can jump to between $12,000 and $18,000.

Students who returned to Seneca Valley during the last school year reduced the cost for the school district by about $40,000.

Seneca Valley's cyber program has also attracted other school districts leaders who want to learn how to start cyber programs.

“We're interested in showing them how we did it, partnering with them and showing them how to run their own program,” Superintendent Tracy Vitale said.

The district received about $450,000 for cyber-related services to other districts in the 2011-12 school year, according to its budget.

Those services include enrolling students from other districts into the Seneca Valley cyber program, training teachers from other districts and advising.

As many as 30 school districts could partner with Seneca Valley during the 2013-14 school year, officials said.

However, Seneca Valley officials would not estimate how much revenue they would receive, nor would they say how much money the district received in tuition and fees from partnering districts during the 2012-13 school year.

“When we're charging them money, that's going towards operating the program and bridging the program, so we're not in it for the business of making money, we're in it for helping other schools start their own cyber program,” Vitale said.

Bringing students back isn't the district's only prerogative.

The school board adopted a resolution in April that called for the state legislature to reform Pennsylvania's cyber charter school funding formula.

In the resolution, the board called the funding system flawed. Each district in Pennsylvania pays a different amount of money per student that attends a charter school.

Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner has criticized the system, saying that it is not based on actual educational cost by the schools.

Seneca Valley officials said that excess funding is unnecessary.

The board adopted a similar resolution opposing the payment of public funds to charter schools in April 2012.

That resolution claimed that “Pennsylvania students in charter and cyber charter schools achieve less academically” than those educated by the district.

“Our graduation rate is 97 percent, and in cyber charters it ranges from 49 percent to 83 percent depending on which cyber charter it is,” Vitale said.

Shawn Annarelli is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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