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School districts going cyber
It costs a lot to run a school district, as East Penn School District Superintendent Thomas Seidenberger can attest. Besides the salaries and supplies his budget has to cover, there are the costs to heat the buildings, fuel the buses and keep the schools sparkling.
In the past few years, East Penn has added a new expense: about $1.2 million yearly in tuition for students who have left the district for state cyber charter academies.
These schools, each compactly contained in computer servers, share few of the costs their brick-and-mortar cousins bear. The expenses they do incur are largely picked up by local school districts, which are required by law to forward some of their tax dollars.
Seidenberger is tired of fighting. He wants to sign up.
East Penn is joining forces with the Parkland School District and Lehigh Carbon Intermediate Unit this fall in a cyber school pilot program they believe could jump-start online education in the Lehigh Valley's public schools. They're part of a rising tide of school districts in Pennsylvania considering or implementing online education, including Quakertown and Northwestern Lehigh.
"It behooves us to act - we're losing $8,300 a kid," Seidenberger said. "We've done some homework. We understand there are just some students that need alternative scheduling."
Seidenberger is betting the promise of an East Penn diploma will stem the district's losses to the cyber charter schools, pulling back costs - and a few students, too.
"Maybe we can entice these kids to come back and have a minimal day and a combination of online and traditional learning," he said.
Cyber education comes in several forms: Some programs allow students to work on projects independently and on their own time; others emphasize virtual classes and teamwork. Cyber learners are similarly diverse, ranging from homeschoolers looking for other options to athletes too busy to attend traditional school.
Germansville parent Kathy Cydis has both. A committed homeschooler, the 39-year-old mother of three also has a wrestler in her oldest son, Cody. When Northwestern Lehigh School District said he couldn't wrestle for the high school team as a home-schooled student, she enrolled him in the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, where state law requires districts to admit students into extracurriculars. He's never looked back.
"Academically, I think it's prepared me pretty well. I've gotten good grades," Cody, 18, said. He'll enter Kutztown University as a computer science major this fall. "I looked at it strictly for schooling. Everyone always talks about the socialization aspect of schooling. I look at it that you're there to learn, to get an education. I get enough socialization as it is."
Kathy Cydis said she wouldn't send her children to a district-run cyber school and told Northwestern Lehigh that when a representative called recently to gauge her interest.
"You're surrendering something when you go over to the school district. We love to have the choices and the opportunities here," she said. "We have people trying their hardest to close the charter schools. To them, it's all about the money. To us, it's all about choice."
Those backing district-run charter schools hope Cydis is an exception.
Robert Keegan, executive director of the intermediate unit, first floated the idea of a unified online program past superintendents in November. While details are still hazy -- much of the program will be fleshed out in the summer, organizers say -- the plan could bring big savings for area districts, some of which pay more than $1 million yearly to educate cyber charter students.
By law, school districts are required to pay charter schools a percentage of their normal per-pupil tuition for each student attending those schools, amounting to about $8,600 per student at the average district.
In 2008, Pennsylvania school districts paid more than $100 million in tuition to cyber charter schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such reimbursements constitute more than 95 percent of the average cyber charter's revenue. And online education's popularity is rising, enrollments show.
"Research shows that most students of the future will be learning using cyber technology, and more and more parents will demand those options," Keegan said.
Several districts already have set out on their own. In the fall, Quakertown Community School District plans to launch a cyber high school that administrators have been able to build without any additional cost to the budget, through stimulus funds and internal reallocations, Superintendent Lisa Andrejko said. If the program lures the more than 20 current cyber charter students who have expressed interest, she said, about $200,000 in reimbursements would return to the district.
Pleasant Valley School District's cyber school has been up and running since the fall. Powered through a vendor in Pittsburgh, the program has about 40 students enrolled in ninth through 12th grades. Educating them costs the district about half what it would pay a charter school, said Carole Geary, assistant superintendent of curriculum.
But Fred Miller, communications coordinator for the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, asks if the quality of education is the same.
PA Cyber, as the charter school is commonly called, provides all students with a computer, a printer, Internet access and technical support, Miller said. He doesn't see many districts willing to provide the same level of investment.
Indeed, Quakertown's Andrejko said her program would consider equipment costs only on a need basis, leaving many students to provide their own computers at home.
Too many districts choose to hire vendors to run their cyber schools, Miller said, scoffing at the "cyber schools in a box" purchased by districts such as Pleasant Valley. Assigning instructors online classes without appropriately adapting the curriculum is a prime example of schools "cheaping out," he said.
"Our folks have about 10 years' experience," he said. "When we started, there was no blueprint, there was no map - we've learned along the way how to run a successful online school. It's not as easy as just having a computer and saying your teacher is going to do the classroom online."