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PA Cyber Charter School announces plans for $5.7 million expansion

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Saturday, July 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

As school districts statewide continue cutting, Pennsylvania's largest cyber school announced plans for widespread expansion, including at least 80 new teachers and a $5.7 million building project in downtown Midland in Beaver County.

“It's a big jump, but we're a big school,” said Michael Conti, CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. “For so long, we've relied on our students and our parents to do the heavy lifting for every child's education. We're changing things up a bit.”

The expansion arrives less than a year after prosecutors indicted the company's founder and former CEO Nicholas Trombetta, who investigators allege illegally funneled $1 million from school coffers. Trombetta pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of mail fraud, bribery, tax conspiracy and filing false tax returns last year. A trial date has not been scheduled.

Conti, Trombetta's replacement, called leading the colossal school “a tremendous responsibility, one I take very, very personally.”

Based largely on independent study, PA Cyber has attracted students from 492 of the 500 Pennsylvania school districts, including at least one student from every district in Western Pennsylvania. State data show 10,389 students attended virtually in 2013-14.

Conti said he wants to change the digital curriculum to one more closely resembling what is offered in traditional public schools.

“In the past, we let students who've proven they can meet deadlines and keep their grades up work independently with occasional contact if they needed support. Others have digital connections one day a week in each of the four subject areas,” which are science, English, math and social sciences, he said. “Our new plan will blend the two.”

Each student will attend digitally at least four live classes taught by different teachers, he said.

“Unfortunately, people have this perception that we're run by computers,” Conti said. “We're not. We're run by real people, and kids will see us all a lot more often going forward.”

Priya Abraham, senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think-tank, said blended learning often solves instructional challenges.

“Growing up, we've all been used to a class of 25 students where the teacher has to teach to the ‘middle ability' of the class,” Abraham said in an email. “That might be too fast for some, and too slow and boring for others.”

New technology, she said, gives digital teachers real-time data that help them identify and address academic shortcomings before they become long-standing problems.

PA Cyber uses a once-vacant, two-story building as a temporary workspace while the school renovates its central office two blocks away.

PA Cyber's 650 employees split time among branches in Erie, Wexford, Pittsburgh, Allentown, State College, Harrisburg, Greensburg and Philadelphia. Eighty to 100 new state-certified staffers will join them, many from a new building at 900 Midland Ave.

The building there now is to be demolished beginning next spring, with construction slated for May 2015.

The project, which will incorporate offices, teaching space, conference rooms, training areas and cubicle space across three floors, should last 18 months, Conti said.

“It will also serve as a center for teaching and learning for our staff,” he said. “Many of our teachers come from brick-and-mortar school backgrounds and need help learning to use our online platform. Before now, we never had a central place to do that.”

The school has budgeted $6.6 million for the project out of $40.7 million in available funds.

PA Cyber's board of trustees approved a $120.8 million spending plan in June, including $119.7 million in revenue from the state Department of Education and the school districts that PA Cyber's students would have otherwise attended.

In Pennsylvania, cyber schools get 80 percent of the state funding a public school would receive for a student, which ranges between $6,000 and $17,000, depending on the district, per nonspecial-education student.

The student's home district keeps the remaining 20 percent.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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