Public schools that have questioned the cost and quality of Pennsylvania’s online charter schools have begun joining forces to compete with them head-on.
Blendedschools.net, a nonprofit consortium of about 70 mostly rural Pennsylvania school districts, was launched July 1 to provide both internet-based courses and two-way videoconferencing to students and schools who want to take advantage of distance learning.
P. Duff Rearick, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District in Franklin County, Pa., and president of the organization’s board of directors, said the idea developed from a conversation he had with three other administrators about cyber school programs. They agreed that although the quality of online high-school programs was good, elementary school offerings needed improvement.
“The issue we were concerned with was the inability of school districts to ensure the quality of the [cyber] education our students were receiving,” Rearick told the state House Education Committee during a presentation Jan. 14.
The end result is a K-8 curriculum developed and taught by state-certified teachers, supplemented with high-school courses available through outside online curriculum providers such as class.com and Keystone National High School. Blendedschools.net, which enrolls about 4,300 students in online courses, plans to offer its own internet-based high school curriculum in the future, Rearick said.
With the introduction of online courses, blendedschools.net replaced a distance-learning consortium that was established in 1994 to allow students in schools that lacked teachers in certain subjects, such as Latin, to connect to classrooms in other parts of the state through videoconferencing.
Online instruction in Pennsylvania has occurred most commonly through cyber charter schools, which were initially established through charters approved by local school districts. Cyber school students access their assignments and teachers primarily through their schools’ web sites from their home computers.
Within the past two years, state lawmakers have given the state Education Department greater control over the schools in response to superintendents’ complaints that they amounted to an unregulated form of home schooling.
To belong to the blendedschools.net network, school districts must pay a fee of about $10,000 to cover the cost of the online and videoconferencing programs. To encourage greater participation, state Rep. Patrick Fleagle (R-Franklin), an education committee member, is preparing to introduce legislation that would require the state to reimburse school districts for the full cost of such cyber-school memberships.
“Technology is not a panacea for all our problems, but I think that [the online advocates] are on to something good here. Programs like this are what we need to cost-effectively deliver education,” said Fleagle.
For example, the Bedford Area School District has been able to save money on cyber charter-school tuition by recruiting cyber charter school students to enroll in the district through blendedschools.net, said Superintendent Patrick Crawford.
“Depending on the cyber school, tuition is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 per student, and $12,000 for a special-education student. We certainly don’t want to lose that [money],” Crawford said.
About half of Bedford’s 22 cyber-school students are enrolled through the consortium, including 16-year-old Cody Spohn. His mother, Marcell, said the program gives him the flexibility to balance online math, English, and science courses, an automotive class at the local vocational school, and his grocery store job.
“I think he really enjoys it. As a matter of fact, my next-oldest son is champing at the bit to enroll next year,” she said.