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Western Pa. districts aim to win back students from cyber charters

| Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Seniors Evan McStay, and Ashley Berman, both 17, do work in the Seneca Valley High School Academy of Choice, their cyber program Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Junior Josh Balog, 16, does work in the Seneca Valley High School Academy of Choice, their cyber program Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. In rear is Principal Denise Manganello and English teacher Jim Ziegler.

As scores of students flee traditional classrooms for the comfort of their keyboards at cyber charter schools, Western Pennsylvania school districts are building cyber academies in an attempt to keep those pupils and the tuition they'd otherwise take with them.

In Pennsylvania, cyber schools get 80 percent of the state funding a public school would receive for a student, usually several thousand dollars per student. The student's home district keeps 20 percent with no obligation to educate the child.

Online programs began this year in Karns City, Avonworth and Franklin Regional, and cyber academies at Fox Chapel and Gateway expanded. Other districts, including Norwin, West Allegheny, Blairsville-Saltsburg, North Hills and Baldwin-Whitehall, have led successful programs for years.

The growth of cyber charters has been costly for brick-and-mortar schools.

This year, 14 cyber charters in Pennsylvania taught 36,596 students — up from just one with 155 students in 2002.

Pittsburgh Public lost hundreds of students and an estimated $42 million in state funding to cybers from 2008 to 2012, the year the district began its online academy for grades 4-12.

Pittsburgh was losing 557 students to outside cyber charters in 2008, and that number steadily grew to 829 in 2012.

Projections at the time showed the district would pay cyber charters who enroll Pittsburgh students $11.4 million in 2016-17, up from $232,200 in 2000-01.

Since the in-house program began, about 126 students have come back, spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

“We specifically targeted kids who opted out of the district for other online programs,” she said. “They're Pittsburgh students, so they weren't just losing out on extracurriculars. Our online academy is the only cyber school still eligible for free college tuition through the Pittsburgh Promise” scholarship program.

West Mifflin Cyber Academy took on 31 full-time online students when it started in 2010, about the same number as those who opted out of the district the two years prior. Enrollment at the in-house cyber academy grew to 63 students last year, representing more than $610,000 that stayed in the district.

The number of West Mifflin students attending other cybers has continued to drop.

Whether in-house or extra-mural, a cyber school is no guarantee of student success.

West Mifflin's assistant principal, Rob Campana, said when students tell him they want to switch to cyber school, he takes a critical look at their grades.

“We need to know what kind of students they are — independent, self-motivated, comfortable for hours in front of a computer,” Campana said. “The ones who want to be there will do well, but if they're failing in regular school, they're probably going to fail in cyber school, too.

“Honestly, we'd rather keep them in the classroom. Cyber school is really hard.”

The switch to cyber is hard enough that in some instances, students return to school with more problems than when they left.

Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent at Elizabeth Forward said the district “lost several students to other cyber schools, and they'd come back a grade level or two behind — especially the younger ones trying to learn how to read and do basic math.

“It's just so difficult,” Keruskin said. “We'd get these kids back two or three years later, and they're just so far behind, it's hard to know where to start.”

Elizabeth Forward belongs to a consortium with 31 other districts led by Seneca Valley, whose officials boast one of the largest programs in the state, contracting with 32 other districts to reach more than 5,000 kids statewide.

“This is for districts trying to get their students back from cyber charter schools,” said Denise Manganello, Seneca Valley's Academy of Choice principal.

The academy leads 176 courses from kindergarten to 12th grade. It trains teachers and maintains cyber study labs. Seven full-time teachers are devoted to the program.

“For us, it was more about providing better learning opportunities for our students,” she said, “but for some of the districts we partner with, cyber academies are really saving their schools.”

Students enrolled in online classes through home districts have full access to sports, clubs and district-sponsored events, officials said.

North Hills helped Baldwin-Whitehall establish a program in 2012 and adopted a similar agreement with Avonworth this year.

At McKeesport, spokeswoman Kristen Davis said the 10-year-old program blends online courses with in-class instruction, credit recovery and acceleration.

“We've got one girl taking a class at the high school and the rest of her workload is online throughout the day,” Davis said. “These programs are so much more flexible for busy kids and allow them to maintain a tie to their communities. That we can help them stay tied to their own rich history is really important to us.”

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

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