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Western Pa. school districts hit Web to lure students, save money

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Brain Fleckenstein (left) and Peggy Bryan, teachers in the Norwin School District, discuss the use of cyber courses in the district on October 16, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

In addition to their daily work teaching in front of rooms full of students, Norwin School District teachers Peggy Bryan and Brian Fleckenstein have adopted online classrooms.

They’re two of many local educators who are teaching virtual classes as school districts grapple with a costly exodus of students to cyber schools. The districts are pitching in-house online courses in an effort to lure students back, retain the ones they have and save money.

Every school district in Westmoreland County offers some e-learning component, and that commitment is “pretty unique,” said Tim Hammill, supervisor of educational technology integration services at the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit. Almost every district has established programs through the intermediate unit, a countywide education consortium.

“Over the past five years, every single school within in the county has implemented some sort of cyber learning initiative,” Hammill said, noting that the offerings at each district vary. “I don’t know of any other county in the state that has the participation in a single program at the level that we do.”

This year in Allegheny County, more than half of the districts are offering some type of cyber initiative through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s “Waterfront Learning” program, which is similar to Westmoreland’s program, said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for the organization.

Online components are offered through most intermediate units in the state, according ot Tom Gluck, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units. Intermediate units were established by legislators decades ago as regional educational service agencies that provide cost-effective programs to Pennsylvania’s schools.

The movement to provide online courses started at the local level, Gluck said, and each district approaches cyber learning differently.

School officials can “shop around” for course offerings through “Keystone Catalog,” an intermediate unit website that collects thousands of online course offerings and makes them available to districts across the state.

“More and more there are those opportunities for school leaders, for students and their families, to walk in the public school doors and have a variety of ways to do K-12 education,” Gluck said.

Building competition

Five years ago, Westmoreland County districts started losing students to cyberschools, so officials worked to build competitive programs.

“When you start to see students leave your school district, the first question is why,” Hammill said. “And the most obvious answer was that there was an alternative option to students. That they could, if they so desired, take that option and go (to cyberschool).”

Under state law, when a student leaves a school district, the district loses state funding. The amounts vary from district to district.

At Norwin, for example, it costs per year about $8,200 to send a student to an outside cyberschool and about $13,200 for a special education student. For Burrell School District, the figures amount to $9,500 per student and $17,000 per special education student.

In both cases — and in general, Hammill and McCluan said — the cost to provide in-district, online education is a fraction of those amounts. In-district programs are cheaper because of the consortium’s pooled resources, Hammill said.

For Norwin, its yearly cost per student for in-house online courses amounts to $1,440. For Burrell, costs amount to $3,500.

Like many other districts, Norwin noticed the shift to online learning. Officials didn’t want to lose district children and noticed that when students returned from cyberschools they were far behind their classmates, said Tracy McNelly, assistant superintendent of secondary education.

So they sent teachers to train at the intermediate unit and began an online program that now serves 39 students in grades 7-12. That’s up from last school year, which had 31 students in grades 9-12 enrolled in the district’s “Center for 21st Century Learners.”

District data show that Norwin saved $125,000 last year by offering its own cyber program.

Not only are districts trying to compel students to stay, Hammill said, many are presenting their cyber programs as a way to lure back students who have left.

Norwin enticed five students this year to return to the district from outside cyberschools, said Brian O’Neil, the district’s director of cyberlearning.

Varied costs

For now, Burrell School District isn’t devoting effort to attracting students who have left, said Superintendent Shannon Wagner, whose “concern is keeping (students).”

Seven students this school year are enrolled in Burrell’s e-academy. Eight enrolled in the program last year; three the year before.

In addition, 30 students this year are enrolled in outside cyberschools. That’s down from the average of 36 per year during the past three years.

Had those seven students in Burrell’s cyberschool left, Wagner said, it “would have been $70,000 out the door.”

“We’re able to do the same thing for about $3,500,” Wagner said.

Or perhaps less. The $3,500 figure is the maximum cost per year for a student who takes courses online. The figure includes eight courses at $300 each, plus $1,000 for a laptop.

Not every student takes eight courses, and not every student needs a laptop.

Students in grades 7 through 12 can enroll in any core course online, Wagner said. If a student wants an elective that Burrell doesn’t offer, officials seek help from other schools across district lines.

For example, Wagner said, a Burrell student might take a “Money Matters” class at Norwin. Burrell pays the Norwin teacher to teach the course.

“It allows us to retain our student rather than having our student and their tax dollars leave our district,” Wagner said.

Several factors prompted the Allegheny cyber program, McCluan said: available technology, competition from cyberschools, and the desire to provide options to students.

“Public educators are doing what is necessary to give parents and students the choices that they want, but — and I have to stress this — in a fiscally responsible manner,” she said. “And that’s where our Waterfront Learning really comes into play.”

Indeed, Wagner said, Burrell is trying to provide for its parents and students.

“What is happening is public education is being pushed into a consumer market,” Wagner said. “And it’s being pushed into having choices for people and convenience for families. I think as a school district we have to do everything we can to be that for the consumer.”

Burrell and Norwin plan to expand their program to include younger grades.

Every year, McNelly said, Norwin sends teachers to the intermediate unit for cyber training, among them Bryan and Fleckenstein, who have figured out how to adopt their chalk-and-blackboard lessons to the computer screen.

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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