News & Media

Demand grows for districts’ online academies

10/06/2016 Lebanon Daily News By Daniel Walmer

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Several Lebanon County School Districts have opened their own online schooling programs in an attempt to compete with the growing popularity of cyber charter schools, and some say they have helped stem the tide.

Tim Spangler, a Lebanon School District resident who had decided to attend Harrisburg-based cyber charter school Commonwealth Charter Academy before his freshman year, changed his mind after meeting with the district and learning about its online program.

That allowed him to create a hybrid schedule, attending some physical classes at Lebanon High School but learning subjects in which he particularly excelled, like math and social studies, from home.

“It went amazingly well. I was able to get ahead on my classes credit-wise, and I was able to excel,” Spangler said.

Spangler is now fully attending Lebanon High School, but plans to graduate a year early next spring.

Several local districts are contracting with the Intermediate Unit’s Lancaster-Lebanon Virtual Solutions (LLVS) to provide their online program. Students complete courses through video and audio podcasts, interact with online tutors, and can message online teachers who are available for appointments to help them through tough spots in their education.

“Personally, I didn’t have many situations where I had to go to the teachers for help, but the situations I did, there were resources I could use,” Spangler said.

The schools have been popular, as at least four Lebanon County school districts have more than 50 students taking some or all of their courses online. District officials credited the online programs for helping to curb the growth of students attending outside cyber charter schools.

One advantage of staying within the district, said Lebanon Virtual Academy Coordinator Ben Brewer, is that the student can go to the physical school and meet with a staff teacher if necessary to help them understand a difficult concept. They are invited to participate in school dances and other district events and ultimately receive a diploma with the name of the local school district on it rather than the name of a cyber charter school, Annville-Cleona Assistant to the Superintendent Andrea Flocken said.

To districts, the biggest advantage of in-house online academies comes down to dollars and cents. Cornwall-Lebanon pays the Intermediate Unit $5,195 for students participating in the LLVS, while it has to shell out $10,050 per student attending a cyber charter school, superintendent Philip Domencic said. If every student in Cornwall-Lebanon who was enrolled in a cyber charter school instead enrolled in the LLVS, the district would have saved more than $568,000 in the 2015-16 school year, the district calculated.

Brewer would still prefer most students attend a brick-and-mortar school. They can receive the peripheral benefits of social interaction with their peers, and teachers can watch for visual cues that they might be puzzled or struggling even if they don’t say it out loud, he said.

However, Brewer and other district-run cyber school coordinators said there are some circumstances where online schooling is the best option for the student.

Some students have health problems that prevent them from attending brick-and-mortar schools, or are single mothers who benefit from a flexible schedule. Flocken said they’ve had students involved in elite gymnastics and ice hockey with travel commitments.

Other students, like Spangler, can graduate early by getting ahead through the online academy.

“The students that are in the (Annville-Cleona Digital Community) program have been quite successful,” Flocken said. “The programming and structure really fits their need.”

Northern Lebanon Superintendent Don Bell launched an ambitious project in 2012-13 to create a separate, statewide public-private combined cyber academy. Local school districts would have had input into the school’s curriculum and any unused cyber charter funds would have been donated back to the local districts.

It was rejected by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, leading Bell to comment sarcastically that, given some of the troubled schools the department had approved, he would have been concerned if they had approved his academy.

Read More