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Cyber students' first day of school involves a short commute

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, 4:54 p.m.

The first day of school is a little different for a cyber charter school student.

It doesn't involve a mad dash to the bus stop or the echo of a first period bell. At 8:30 a.m. Friday, all ninth-grader Bryson O'Donnell had to do was pop open his laptop.

Bryson, 15, of Forest Hills is starting classes with 21st Century Cyber Charter School this year. He's one of many students across the state making the switch. Over the past decade, the number of students enrolled in cyber charters has steadily risen.

Last school year, 32,958 students statewide chose to enroll in cyber charters over traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools. That's about 2 percent of the 1.72 million public school students in Pennsylvania. Last year, there were 145,357 public school students, including those enrolled in charter schools, in Allegheny County.

After completing kindergarten through fifth grade at a private school, Bryson attended both the local elementary school and a charter school for sixth grade. For middle school, he was back in the local school district.

But Bryson didn't feel safe at his local middle school, where he said teachers couldn't get through lessons because they were busy disciplining students.

“Me and a few other kids want to listen,” Bryson said. “We can't even do anything to block them out.”

His mother, Chrissy O'Donnell, worries that her son won't be able to learn if he doesn't feel safe. She also was concerned about being able to build relationships with teachers.

“And if I have to sacrifice him not being in a schoolhouse and keep him home for a good education, that's what I want to do,” O'Donnell said.

With the school year ahead of him, Bryson said he's a little nervous about being home all day. But for the most part, he's optimistic and said he's looking forward to learning to play piano and getting started on coursework and extracurricular activities that will prepare him to major in music and business in college.

The family chose 21st Century based on recommendations from friends who also enroll their children in the school. Headquartered in Downingtown, it is one of 15 privately managed but publicly funded nonprofit cyber charters in the state. Like their brick-and-mortar charter school counterparts, cyber charters are free to any student who wants to attend.

The school was founded in 2001 and enrollment has doubled during the past decade, reaching 964 students last school year. This summer, the school held its first in-person summer camp in the Greater Pittsburgh area for new and prospective students.

The school is further extending its reach in the region with the opening of a satellite office in Murrysville. The office will house up to 15 employees, including six full-time teachers. It also has space for students to sit for proctored state tests and to join in-person activities.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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