Pa. Cyber-Charter Schools: Do They Make the Grade?
Mary Beth Schweigert; Chip Smedley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)
LANCASTER, Pa. -- Angela Altrichter home-schooled all three of her sons through eighth grade.
But as her boys got older, Ms. Altrichter realized she didn't want to teach high school.
She looked for a program with a low student-to-teacher ratio and eventually chose 21st Century Cyber Charter School in Exton, Pa.
Ms. Altrichter's youngest son, Aaron, is now a junior at the school, where his schedule includes both live online lessons and independent assignments.
It's a good fit for Aaron, who hopes to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.
"[My teachers] are always very supportive," he said. "When we complete assignments, they give us very positive feedback."
The Altrichters, of Lancaster Township, are among a growing number of Pennsylvania families who are choosing cyber-charter schools.
Sixteen cyber-charters operate throughout the state, including four that opened just this fall. Another eight have applied to open next year, including one that plans a "cyber cafe" in Lancaster.
In 2011-12, the schools enrolled 32,322 students.
Cyber-charter schools are public schools. The Pennsylvania Department of Education grants the schools' charters and has financial and academic oversight. Families do not pay tuition. When a student within a school district's boundaries attends a cyber- charter school, the district foots the bill.
Cyber-charters are magnets for controversy, attracting defenders and detractors who are equally passionate.
Supporters say the schools offer choice and flexibility to families, who, for a variety of reasons, are dissatisfied by their experiences in traditional school districts.
Critics, on the other hand, say cyber-charters produce lackluster academic results, operate without sufficient oversight and put a financial strain on local districts.
Sharon Williams, head of school for Agora Cyber Charter School in Wayne, Pa., said despite cyber-charters' phenomenal recent growth, most people don't understand how the schools actually work.
"There's a perception that we don't know who these kids are," she said. "Not true."
There is no one typical cyber-charter school in Pennsylvania.
In 2011-12, enrollment ranged from 112 students at Central PA Digital Learning Foundation to 10,559 at The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.
Cyber-charters give students computers, printers and reimbursement for Internet service. Some provide other supplies, such as digital cameras and pedometers.
Some cyber-charters are connected to management companies or intermediate units (regional educational service agencies). Others operate independently.
All cyber-charters are governed by independent school boards. Many schools have satellite offices across the state to offer greater access to families.
The management companies, which provide computers, curriculum, textbooks and other services, are a source of controversy.
State Auditor General Jack Wagner, a vocal critic of charter school funding, has recommended limiting fees paid to management companies.
Schools' relationships with the companies "can result in excessive profit-making with public education dollars," he said.
But leaders of cyber-charter schools that use management companies said the relationship allows them to deliver quality online content.
Agora is part of a national network of schools affiliated with K12 Inc.
"I get the latest and greatest research," Ms. Williams said. "I have the opportunity to connect with other schools like ours. We share our challenges and best practices."
Emily Bailey, an eighth-grader at PA Cyber, wants to be a professional dancer. …