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District enrolling for new virtual school scheduled to open in September

By Connie Langland on Aug 12, 2013 05:12 PM

The District is rolling out the Philadelphia Virtual Academy (PVA), a new online initiative that it hopes will stem the loss of students and tuition to cyber charter schools.

David Anderson, who is experienced in developing online learning programs in city alternative schools, has been named PVA director, and the District has stocked up on MacBook Air laptops for the 6th to 12th graders who will enroll.

The 21st Century Cyber Charter School, the vendor that will provide most of the curriculum and instruction at the virtual school, is geared up to expand, with a plan to hire more teachers depending on enrollment numbers from Philadelphia and other area school systems now experimenting in online education.

Instruction at PVA is set to begin Sept. 3. The cyber academy will follow the same calendar as the District, though it will not close for snow days. But what is not known yet is the final enrollment tally.

According to the District, 118 students had enrolled at PVA as of Monday, Aug. 12. Half of those students were returning from a cyber charter or charter school, where the cost to the District is an average of $10,000 each. About 30 of the total had sought to enroll in either a charter or a cyber charter but then opted for PVA, while 10 students enrolled at PVA after previously being homeschooled or attending a private school, according to information provided to the District by the parents.  

But the total is far less than what the District had projected in an announcement made in April. The goal then was 1,000 students at PVA in 2013-14 and 1,200 in 2014-15.

“We’ve been sending communications to those [cyber school] families by mail. We’re saying check out PVA, not only for the quality but for the personalization and the drop-in centers,” said Fran Newberg, the District’s deputy chief of educational technology.

Almost 6,000 city students attend cyber charters. A student attending the Virtual Academy will cost the District just under $6,000 annually, compared with $10,000 per student paid to the state-approved charter schools. In the spring, the District had estimated the endeavor would break even if PVA drew 85 students back from charters.

At a recent informational meeting attended by about half a dozen parents and several students, Anderson stressed that each student’s learning plan would be individualized. Teachers will be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Anderson, the PVA director, told the father of an 11th grader: “We’re going to meet [your daughter] at her level every step of the way.”  

Students also will have “face-to-face support,” if needed, with teaching assistants at three proposed drop-in centers: one at District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.; a second in the Rivera Building on North Fifth Street in the Fairhill section; and a third at Leeds Middle School on East Mount Pleasant Avenue in the Stenton section. The first to open will be at District headquarters.

Each student also will be assigned a liaison who will monitor the student’s progress in all courses and stay in touch with both parents and teachers. A report showing student progress, including time on the computer, current grade, and percent of course completed, will be posted online each Friday, accessible to both students and parents.

The expectation is that students will spend one hour per course per day, according to Anderson.

The District has contracted with the Brandywine Virtual Academy, operated by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, based in Exton, Pa., to offer “turn-key” services, including curriculum and instruction, special education and technical services. Via a subcontract, most courses will be taught by teachers at 21st Century Cyber Charter School, also in Exton.

The 21st Century charter was opened in 2001 at the behest of the directors of the Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County Intermediate Units and the 64 school districts in those counties. At the time, the educators expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of virtual school options. Eleven area school superintendents and three parents make up the current governing board.

According to 21st Century director Jon Marsh, the organization has developed much of its own curriculum in alignment with state standards and the Common Core state standards initiative.

In recent years, 21st Century also has become a provider of instruction to districts that have opened their own cyber schools. The districts typically contract with Brandywine, which then hires the Exton cyber school for coursework.

“I would wager 250-plus of the 500 districts in the Commonwealth are doing this on a small scale, at least. They want to attract those families back,” said Marsh.

Last year, 21st Century started with an enrollment of nearly 800 students, including some from Philadelphia, though that number dropped to about 600 -- a typical attrition rate in cyber schools, according to Marsh. In addition, the school delivered just over 1,000 credits to 340 students enrolled in home district cyber schools.

The trend to online education also has impacted 21st Century. In its most recent financial report to the state, the school noted that several of its teachers, trained in online instruction, had been hired away as districts started up their own programs. The teachers are not unionized, and their average salary this past year was $54,100, with extra merit pay averaging $1,300, according to Marsh. 

Marsh said his school sees “opportunities for growth with districts like Philadelphia. … Our niche will be working with the districts.”

Opening one or more satellite offices in Philadelphia is a possibility, depending on future enrollment, he noted. The school, now situated in an office park on Route 30 east of Exton, recently purchased a $1.4 million facility in Downingtown, Chester County.

Christine Roussey, whose two daughters are enrolled in 21st Century, praised the school’s curriculum and said teachers there “are engaging and have high energy.”

When one daughter suffered a bout of mononucleosis and fell behind, “teachers made sure she completed all the work, as if they were in a brick-and-mortar school,” she said.

At the Philadelphia informational session, Heriangely Cruz Rojas said her daughter was being bullied -- a common reason that families choose virtual school -- and that online education would “give her the opportunity to keep learning and not fall back.”

Driss El-Bakhadoui complained that his child’s teacher was too often absent.

“We’re teaching him fractions at home. He should go to school for what? Wasting time?” asked El-Bakhadoui. “We’re going to try this.”

To enroll a student in PVA, visit the District website at www.philasd.org/PVA, email PVA@philasd.org, or call 215-400-3110.

Comments (27)

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on August 12, 2013 6:11 pm
Well there's $15 million dollars that could have gone to traditional schools. Smart move (Sarcastic Smiley Needed Here)
Submitted by Hope Moffett (not verified) on August 13, 2013 11:11 am
Cyber charter are woefully ineffective but that doesn't mean that the District's decision to open a cyber charter is not fiscally sound. The $15 million budget was based on a larger projected population. It is not a fixed cost and the lower actual enrollment will result in a lower budget. The District's projected breakeven is at the point when 85 students return from charters (I am making the generous assumption that the District's calculations were honest). The article mentions around 89 students who returned from or who would have attended charters. Discounting for the 10 students who bring new costs to the system and the cost of deconsolidating brick and mortar schools, the District is close to or has met breakeven. Insofar as the students who attend would have attended charter or cyber schools, the payments come out of the District's payments to charters, not from a reduction in payments to District schools. By saving $4,000 per cyber student, the District frees up that money for in District students. If the District can recall cyber students without cannibalizing its own students, the District and all of the students in it will be better off. One caveat is that the high attrition rate for cyber schools necessitates continuous recruiting and the failure to sustain and increase the student population would make PVA a money losing proposition. What would leave the District best off would be to legally eliminate all cyber charters. But until that day comes, the District is protecting its budget by providing an alternative to cyber schools that charge the District far more than it costs them to educate their students.
Submitted by Wendy Harris on August 22, 2013 10:46 am

Hi Hope:

My name is Wendy Harris. I am the managing editor of the Notebook. In each print edition we have a section called "From our Readers," where we list comments from blog posts and stories that appear on our site. We thought your comment on this story would make a good addition to our "From our Readers" column and I wanted to ask permission to reprint it in our next edition, which is our back-to-school edition. We edit coments for space, but maintain the original meaning of the what was written. Please let me know if we have permission to reprint your comment. You can email me at wendyh@thenotebook.org. Thanks very much for your consideration of my request.

Submitted by Wendy Harris on August 28, 2013 11:41 am

Hi Hope:

I am the managing editor of the Notebook. We have a section in the paper called "From our readers" and in that section we reprint comments that visitors to our site or other readers make. We are interested in reprinting this comment in the section in our back to school edition. Could you please let me know if you would grant us permission to reprint your comment. You can email me at wendyh@thenotebook.org. Thanks very much. Hope to hear from you soon.

Wendy Harris, Managing Editor

Submitted by ConcernedRoxParent (not verified) on August 12, 2013 6:09 pm
SO, this wonderful new venture is costing $127,118 per student. There is a good way to spend your money! For a cyber charter run out of Chester County,
Submitted by Will (not verified) on August 12, 2013 6:33 pm
Are there teacher unions for charter schools? I wonder how much they make...
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on August 12, 2013 7:01 pm
The District's cyber school is contracting with 21st Century Cyber - the teachers are not unionized. I'm sure this appealed to Hite/Khin/Phila. School Dictatorship/SRC/Nutter.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on August 12, 2013 8:42 pm
Theoretically, the teachers should be from The PFT, I suspect, though I may be wrong.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 15, 2013 9:01 pm
Find out here: http://www.openpagov.org/school_payroll/sdefault.asp or here: http://php.app.com/PAteachers11/search.php
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 12, 2013 9:35 pm
Charter schools each have their own contracts with teachers and unions. The district has a collective bargaining agreement with PFT. They are contracting with non-union teachers for jobs that should go to PFT. Other districts have fought this. Where is our fight?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 13, 2013 12:17 am
Charter schools each have their own contracts with teachers and unions. The district has a collective bargaining agreement with PFT. They are contracting with non-union teachers for jobs that should go to PFT. Other districts have fought this. Where is our fight? Yes other districts fought this and most won.The BIG difference is they have a union that actually represents it's members and will go to bat even if that means arbitration or courts.The inaction PFT leadership sadly just lets these things pass by and thats it.More money, teaching and staff jobs will be lost.These should definitely be PFT teaching jobs . There was no agreement (yet) about outsourcing teaching jobs.Jordan should have filed a arbitration case way back in spring when he knew they were going to outsource these jobs and get the ball rolling.Nope sat idle along with the grievance committee.Business as usual. Time to question the PFT leadership on this and a host of other issues that we need answers to. Email Jerry Jordan at: jjordan@pft.org and execoffice@pft.org
Submitted by concerned citizen (not verified) on August 12, 2013 9:54 pm
No union. The article states, "In its most recent financial report to the state, the school noted that several of its teachers, trained in online instruction, had been hired away as districts started up their own programs. The teachers are not unionized, and their average salary this past year was $54,100, with extra merit pay averaging $1,300, according to Marsh. "
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 12, 2013 10:54 pm
All BS.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 12, 2013 11:09 pm
$15M for a program serving 102 students while the public schools starve to death. SMH. This is gross negligence and an irresponsible use of taxpayers money. One would have thought the District would have conducted a study to measure the number of families interested in transferring from a cyber charter school to PVA prior to throwing 15M out the door. They are quick to pay millions of dollars for a bunch of other useless studies. YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 18, 2013 10:30 pm
15 million was the Cap, not the payment. This is a pay per student venture, so the district only pays for students who enroll. It's not that hard to determine how many parents and students are interested, over 5000 have already left the district to enroll in cyber charters, in this scenario the districts gets some money back!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 19, 2013 3:31 am
Just because 5000 students are enrolled in cyber charters doesn't mean they have a desire to transfer to PVA. Anyway, I am glad to learn that the District will only pay for students that are actually enrolled.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on August 13, 2013 6:10 am
Keeping parents unsure as to whether school will open this year is a great marketing tool that the SRC has to increase enrollment. Brillant move creating this crisis.
Submitted by Ms. Pat (not verified) on August 13, 2013 4:24 pm
How do these students access the cyber school classes- do they need home computers and internet service? Sounds like more of the same economic class discrimination that plagues our neighborhood schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2013 10:40 am
The cyber school must provide computer, printer and internet access.
Submitted by Brian Lutz (not verified) on August 15, 2013 11:10 pm
21st Century is one of the better Pa CyberCharterSchools because it is run by regional superintendants. From that standpoint they are getting one of the best for less. Brian, retired CyberSchool Teacher
Submitted by Brian Lutz (not verified) on August 15, 2013 11:45 pm
They are getting Mac BookAir to use--pretty cool!
Submitted by Brian Lutz (not verified) on August 15, 2013 11:03 pm
PVA is probably the best educational choice for students wanting to learn, as far as cyber charters. Many of the others just hold kids on their rolls and collect the dough. At least with 21st they have a chance at getting a real education.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2013 10:20 am
As a cyber school teacher I can confirm, we are not part of any union and do not have a contract.
Submitted by ms pat (not verified) on August 16, 2013 11:42 am
How does one apply? How many hours/week? What are salaries like and do you get benefits?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 16, 2013 3:35 pm
You can check a school's website for employment opportunities. When I taught, it was full-time with benefits.
Submitted by Anonymous on March 4, 2014 3:03 pm
This is quite interesting. It touches alof of urgent problems of our society. It is impossible to be uninvolved to these challenges. This post gives the light in which we may observe our reality. Keep it up. http://jimgilmore08.com/
Submitted by Desmond (not verified) on June 4, 2014 9:15 am
It was about time public education was extended to the online industry as well. It has a lot of great resources and this will also teach students the ability of operating a computer and the internet with more efficiency desmond

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