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Cyber education grows in districts, lowers enrollment at charter schools

| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 11:13 p.m.

Nancy Haines-Moskala is furious about the planned closing in June of her son's cyber charter school.

“You are obligated to deliver the same education to our children that we were promised by you when we enrolled our children in this school,” Haines-Moskala, 43, of Lincoln Place told the board of STREAM Academy at a Wilkins meeting last week.

STREAM has had its enrollment decline as more cyber charter schools opened and traditional school districts boosted their online offerings to bring back students who left for charter schools, taking state subsidies with them.

“One of the reasons we believe enrollment is so low … with the increasing availability of a variety of technologies, parents and students have more options than ever before,” said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which operates STREAM Academy.

Almost every district in Allegheny County offers cyber education for students, ranging from a few classes to a full school, AIU executive director Linda Hippert said.

Pittsburgh Public Schools said it spent more than $45 million on tuition in the 2011-12 school year for about 3,125 students who lived with the school district but were attending charter schools. Of that, about $11.4 million paid the tuition for 789 students enrolled in cyber charter schools.

In response, the district opened Pittsburgh Online Academy in the fall.

Of the 47 students in sixth through 12th grade enrolled in the academy, about 20 percent returned from cyber charter schools, administrator Mark McClinchie said.

“I think we'll continue to grow probably 20 to 30 percent a year,” he said.

Cyber school advocates say districts are realizing what online providers have known for years: Cyber education allows students to learn at a more flexible pace and removes distractions, such as bullying.

“Fifty percent of the kids who go to cyber charter schools are failing in their home districts, so it's an effort to try to get them back up to grade level,” said Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools in West Chester.

STREAM offers synchronous learning, which means students and teachers are required to interact at scheduled times.

“The STREAM program and teachers are too good to let go,” said Haines-Moskala, whose son, Lucas, 11, is a fifth-grader.

The school is governed by a board of directors made up of superintendents or their designees from 10 school districts.

Charter schools have yet to prove themselves academically, some educators said.

Of the 12 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania during the 2011-12 school year, none made adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Of 144 brick-and-mortar charter schools, 43 made AYP.

The state has 16 cyber charter schools.

McCluan said AIU developed STREAM last year, hoping to reverse the enrollment losses of its 11-year-old predecessor, PA Learners Online, whose enrollment slipped from 660 in June 2009 to 386 in June 2012.

STREAM is an acronym for science, technology, research, engineering, arts and math. It opened in August with the hope that the science and technology focus, in addition to a learning center in Wilkins that students visit a few times a month, would turn the tide.

STREAM officials initially projected that 650 students would enroll, but by August, projections fell to 400. Between December and March 20, enrollment slipped from 333 to 282.

STREAM's 2012-13 budget is $6.7 million. Estimated revenue by December was $4.2 million, but expenses were $5.8 million.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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