Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


The New Home Schooling

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By Connie Langland

Like many Pennsylvania children, eight-year-old Venus Kennedy has just begun third grade, but not in a new and unfamiliar classroom. She is doing all of her schooling from the comfort of her family home near Temple University.

Kennedy is among the thousands of youngsters in the Philadelphia region for whom the start of school this year means pulling up a chair in their living room, dining room or bedroom and logging on to a computer.

They are attending virtual schools - a fast-growing trend in K-12 education, enrolling about 175,000 students nationwide and estimated 23,000 in Pennsylvania.

It is a new and popular iteration on the old idea of home schooling, especially since most cyber schools are also charter schools and tuition is paid by the state and local school districts.

JC_schoolwork.jpgIn Philadelphia, the number of students enrolled in cyber charters - as these virtual schools are called - has doubled in the last five years. The Philadelphia School District said there were 3,613 city students enrolled in cyber charters the school year that just ended and expects the number to climb to over 4,000 September. In the suburbs, the number of virtual home schoolers is estimated by the state at 2,500.

These numbers are still small compared to children enrolled in traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. In the city, about 155,000 students attend public schools, another 35,000 are enrolled in bricks-and-mortar charters and about 16,000 attend private schools. In addition, an unknown number of parents - they probably number in the hundreds - home school without public support.

This new version of schooling -- one that barely existed a decade ago -draws families for a myriad of reasons, It puts the focus on the individual student, and challenges not just the child but the parent to meet homework and assessment requirements and advance through the curriculum.

"We decided, let's give this a chance. It has worked out really well. She's never stepped foot in a public school," said Venus' mother, Lori Bartolomei, whose two older daughters, now grown, had attended public schools.

The decision of Bartolomei and her husband, Leonard Kennedy, was influenced by their lack of confidence in the city schools, and she said conversations with other cyber families echo her own concerns. "Overcrowded classrooms ... violence in schools ... police in and out of the buildings - those were our concerns," said Bartolomei. "Plus, we would have the opportunity to teach her on our own with the help of teachers."

Venus is enrolled in the Commonwealth Connections Academy, one of the 11 cyber charter companies in the state.  She studies an average 51/2 hours a day - just like her peers in public schools. She logs on for live lessons with her teacher, whom she can see and hear; and she can hear, but not view, classmates who also have logged on. The child's teacher typically calls every two weeks to review lessons - and to make sure the child, not the parent, is doing the work

There's an icon on the computer monitor screen for Venus to click to let the teacher know she's in class, and another to click if she leaves the room for awhile. If she misses the live session, she can still get the lesson, since the session is recorded. She has made friends with classmates that she has met on school-sponsored field trips. Some work is online, plus there are also pencil-and-paper worksheets and projects. "It's fun," said Venus.

Like all charter schools, cyber charters are independently run but publicly funded, with local districts and the state underwriting the cost of operating charters, including the virtual variety. For Philadelphia, it's a huge bill--$442 million was spent during the school year that just ended. 

Annual reports filed by the cyber schools with the state show that some students enroll, then drop out. Reasons for the departures include difficulty staying focused or just failingCybercharter enrollment.jpg to log on for an extended time.

According to the educators, virtual schools are proving attractive to students who feel bullied or who just don't fit in; students who have fallen behind or have moved far ahead of classmates and their local school is unwilling or unable to accommodate them; and students who have medical needs - or career plans - and need more flexibility in terms of daily schedules.

The program does require a parent or guardian's supervision, at least in the early and middle grades, impacting the parents' work and other commitments.

While many families cite dissatisfaction with local schools as a deciding factor in opting for at-home cyber education, virtual schools have had troubles of their own. All but one of the 11 cyber schools operating in Pennsylvania have had trouble meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Through 2009, the one school whose students were performing to NCLB standards was 21stCentury Cyber Charter School, a nonprofit school run by the four suburban Intermediate Units, but that school lost ground on the newly released 2010 PSSAs when it failed to meet state goals in math.

Overall, eight cyber schools missed state math and reading benchmarks on the 2010 assessments while three have been credited with making sufficient progress. The three are: Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School and Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation Charter School.

(For details about performance, go to the State Department of Education's online Academic Achievement Report, where AYP and PSSA data are published. Charter school data can be found at the bottom of the list in the "Select a County or I.U." category.)

A lttle-publicized 2009 analysis by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association concluded that both public schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools outperform cyber charter schools in the state.

Students in the city have enrolled in greatest numbers in four schools - Agora Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School and Commonwealth Connections Academy, where Venus is enrolled.

Agora, which enrolls about 5,000 students, came under state scrutiny a year ago - nearly losing its charter after the state challenged the school's dealings with its then-management group, Cynwyd Group, LLC, owned by the school's founder, June Brown. In a court-sanctioned settlement, the state paid Brown $1.7 million and the school's new management, K12 Pennsylvania, paid $1.3 million to sever relations with Brown. In addition, the school's governing board was replaced.

Home Schooling 2.jpgIn June, the state renewed the charters of both Agora and PA Cyber - the largest virtual school in the state, with 9,000 students -but both schools must upgrade their academic programs to improve student performance on state assessments and improve transparency in their dealings with their management companies by next spring or face possible charter revocation.

Agora's troubles prompted one family to consider staying virtual but changing schools.

Rebecca Henderson, of the West Oak Lane section, visited an information session hosted by Commonwealth Connections Academy in mid August at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City. Joining her was a friend, Rossana Jaffe, of the Northeast, who has been home-schooling the older three of her four children, ages 9, 8, 5 and 2.

Henderson cited crowded classrooms and discipline issues - "children acting out in class" - as reasons she shunned the local public schools though she is open to the idea that her son Bruce, 8, might attend a "bricks and mortar" school at some point.

"I had a good experience in high school and I would like him to experience that if I can find a school that is adequate for him," Henderson said. "Right now, I enjoy home-schooling my son. I like [the fact that] everything he learned I taught him."

She scoffed at the suggestion, frequently raised, that he may be missing out on learning collaboration, cooperation and social skills now emphasized by educators and employers alike. "Social problems? My son has no social problems," Henderson said, adding that he plays tennis, golf and soccer with peers, and has after-school playtime with friends in the neighborhood.

Jaffe said she and her husband were considering the virtual school option to bolster her own efforts at home schooling. She favors educating her children at home, she said, for reasons "such as flexibility, such as the ability to focus on my children's interests."

Virtual school has appeal, she said, because "they provide so much support. They give you everything - computer, printer, workbooks - and support staff to back you up. And, it's free!"



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