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Jamie Martines
Michael Darbous, 13, of Vandergrift at his work station at home, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017.

A few weeks before the first day of school, a package arrived at eighth-grader Michael Darbous' home in Vandergrift. It was full of school supplies, and the 13-year-old student could hardly wait to tear it open.

Buried under layers of bubble wrap were textbooks — math, science and history — along with art supplies. Michael examined materials for science experiments — thermo­meters, pH testing strips, eye droppers — and tried on a pair of safety goggles for size. Eventually, he uncovered an essential piece of equipment for any cyber school student: a set of headphones to plug into his computer so that he can listen to lessons.

Michael is a student with the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Charter Academy, one of 15 public, nonprofit cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania. Cyber charters are privately managed but publicly funded schools authorized by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Like their brick-and-mortar charter school counterparts, cyber charters are free to any student who wants to attend. Supplies such as the contents of Michael's box, as well as internet and a laptop, often are included. But instead of going to class in person with dozens of other students and teachers, cyber charter students can access their lessons online from anywhere they have an internet connection.

While cyber charters have been criticized for low performance and for the financial pressure some public school administrators and advocates say they put on school districts, families across the state increasingly are choosing them.

The number of students enrolled in cyber charters has steadily risen during the past decade. Last school year, 32,958 students statewide enrolled in cyber charters rather than traditional, brick-and-mortar public schools. That's about 2 percent of the 1.72 million public school students in Pennsylvania. There were 145,357 public school students — including those enrolled in charter schools — in Allegheny County and 46,950 students in Westmoreland County last year.

“A lot of the parents are choosing cyber charters because there is something not working for them in the traditional environment,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, which advocates for both cyber and brick-and-mortar charters.

Many families who choose cyber charters are not unlike Michael and his mother, Karen Daley. Michael made the switch to online schooling halfway through fourth grade, attending an online program run through the district he was living in at the time. By fifth grade, he was back in a traditional classroom in a different school district. But his mother wasn't satisfied with that learning environment either.

“You don't hear from your teacher in public school,” Daley said, adding that she felt progress reports or parent-teacher conferences weren't enough contact. She also thought students weren't getting enough instruction time because teachers were so busy managing student behavior.

Michael started with Commonwealth Charter Academy in sixth grade. So far, he's happy with the decision and insists he doesn't spend the whole day sitting in front of the computer.

“Because that's what a lot of people think,” Michael said, explaining his typical school day, which starts at 7 a.m. and includes live lessons, held over video conference and time spent working on his own. Assignments could include a hands-on science experiment or art project. Occasionally, Michael and his mother will take a school-led field trip to a museum. He goes to swim team practice at the local middle school in the afternoon — cyber charter students can join extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs or music groups, at their home districts.

“It's all really fun. It's all one big learning experience,” Michael said. He doesn't miss the classroom and, at this point, doesn't have plans to return to a brick-and-mortar school.

His mother agrees. Michael likes to learn and gets good grades, and she enjoys being involved in his education. That, she said, is part of his success.

“The parent has to realize that they're an integral part,” Daley said.

Maurice Flurie, chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Charter Academy, said cyber charters don't work for everyone. Students who are successful in the cyber charter learning environment have someone in their lives who participates in their education.

“The parent needs to be very active, very involved and available for our teachers,” Flurie said.

The Commonwealth Charter Academy enrolled 9,008 students last school year. That's nine times the enrollment in 2005, according to Department of Education data.

Families choose the school for several reasons, including special health or learning needs, a desire for accelerated classes or to pursue interests such as music or athletics, Flurie said. Flurie said many families have told him they are unhappy with their local schools.

“The relationship was broken,” he said.

Other charter school leaders gave similar explanations for why families choose cyber charters.

“It's not a cookie-cutter approach,” said John Chandler, chief executive officer at Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. “There's some flexibility. It comes down to safety, frequently. If there are safety issues — bullying, or just not a safe environment.”

For parents such as Kim Ford of Butler, flexibility is a priority. Her son Zane, now a 12-year-old seventh-grader, is a nationally ranked tennis player who adheres to a rigorous daily training schedule and needs to complete his lessons at a time outside of the normal school day.

Ford also was concerned about the school's curriculum and teachers. Building personal relationships with teachers and getting extra tutoring is harder in a traditional public school setting, she said.

She considered five cyber charters before settling on the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, founded in 2001 and based in King of Prussia. Last year, the school's enrollment was 2,229 students. It's one of few cyber charters in the state to see decreasing enrollment during the past 10 years.

“What works for one kid, even in the same family, doesn't work for another,” Ford said. Her eldest son, an 11th-grader, attends the local public school, while her daughter, a 10th-grader, attends a performing arts charter. Her youngest child, who is in sixth grade, also is considering a charter.

“And I think every family's different,” she said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @ Jamie_Martines.

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