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School districts, cyber charters vie for students

School districts are adding their own full-time online learning programs to win back cyber charter school students—and recapture the millions of dollars that have followed them.

No matter whether he turns left or right driving home from his Homestead, Pa., office, Paul Cindric, curriculum coordinator for the new STREAM Academy Cyber Charter School, is bound to pass a huge billboard advertising a competitor.

“The competition is fierce,” Cindric said.

This might be the most competitive year yet. This fall, there will be 16 cyber charter schools trying to attract students from across Pennsylvania. Last school year, 13 cyber charter schools, one of which has closed, drew more than 32,000 students.

Some of the state’s 500 school districts that are home to these students will be fighting back.

Some school districts are adding their own full-time online learning programs to win back cyber charter school students—or at least stem the flow out—and recapture the millions of dollars that have followed them.

The districts offer a personal contact, a district diploma, and what some consider a better connection to district activities.

At the same time, some cyber charter schools are adding more opportunities for face-to-face instruction, ranging from in-person tutoring centers to periodic live science labs. They want to attract and keep students who want an online education but want at least some face-to-face contact.

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“We do recognize that a one-size-fits-all educational program is probably a thing of the past,” said Tammy Andreyko, assistant superintendent of academic advancement in North Allegheny, which is starting the North Allegheny Cyber Academy in grades 3 through 8 this fall.

With the new Pittsburgh Online Academy this fall, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials have been blunt that they are trying to win back cyber charter school students—saving the district thousands of dollars per student—by offering the district’s own full-time online learning program.

Pittsburgh is targeting students entering grades 6 through 12 because they would become eligible for Pittsburgh Promise postsecondary scholarships, making the switch more attractive.

About 60 students started in late August, including about 20 who attended a cyber charter school last year and about a half-dozen who were considering such a school this fall.

Cyber enrollment tends to be fluid, so the numbers may grow as the year progresses.

In addition to its virtual learning coordinator and some other expenses, Pittsburgh is paying Waterfront Learning—an arm of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit—$3,500 a student for the total academic package, including curriculum, laptop, internet access, and teachers.

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