Commentary: Philadelphia Virtual Academy is a successful and unique educational option for Philadelphia families
Last week, an opinion piece entitled “Commentary: Philadelphia Virtual Academy exemplifies the District’s double standard on renewal applications” compared charter schools and a virtual education option, the Philadelphia Virtual Academy (PVA). In many ways, this simply isn’t an appropriate comparison, and we want to explain why.
First, it’s helpful to understand the fundamental differences between charter schools and PVA. Charter schools are a creation of state law. The authorization and renewal of charter schools are governed by state law, and charter schools operate under the terms of a charter agreement signed with the District. Charter schools can exist as brick and mortar schools or as “cyber charters,” which operate as virtual schools. Students attend charter schools full-time. Charter schools are subject to the same Pennsylvania Department of Education evaluation measures as traditional District schools, with assessments summarized as a School Performance Profile score.
The Philadelphia Virtual Academy is similar to a cyber charter in that it is a virtual education model, but that is where the similarity ends. PVA is in most ways more similar to an online “academy” – like Corsera or Kahn Academy – than to a traditional District or charter school. For example, PVA students can attend as few or as many classes as they want or can handle at that time. The majority are not full-time students; in fact, PVA students are often juggling many different needs alongside their school work. The structure of PVA is intentional. PVA was developed in response to families with students in situations that require flexibility, such as those who are transitioning from out of state and needing to catch up on a few classes, or in a transitional situation for a semester or two, or helping at home with a family crisis, or even unable to manage a traditional classroom environment for a period of time. PVA provides a public school option that allows students to learn in a virtual setting that is more flexible than enrolling in a charter school.
Second, PVA has a different relationship with the District than charter schools. When we first launched PVA five years ago, we issued a request for proposals. Following the process, we entered into a contract with the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), which had a proven track record in online learning. The original contract for CCIU was for three years and “up to” $15 million. The contract with CCIU provided for a “per-service-consumed” payment. That means we agreed to pay CCIU only for the number of individual courses that students took at PVA. In five years, many students and families have decided that PVA is a good option for them. In 2013, CCIU was paid for the classes taken by 65 students. This year, CCIU is being paid for the classes taken by 687 students (the opinion piece incorrectly stated that the enrollment is 462 students). This is by far the most efficient per-student cost structure that the District has.
In February 2018, we completed a second request for proposals seeking providers that could meet the virtual instructional and on-site management needs of up to 2,000 students in 6th through 12th grades, using the same “per-service-consumed” structure. We reached the 2,000 student number based off of the growth we have seen in the number of students using the PVA model over the last five years. The resolution approved by the School Reform Commission on May 17, 2018, enables the District to enter a new contract with CCIU for a three-year term and an “up to” spend of $20 million. The full resolution is available here: https://www.philasd.org/src/wp-content/uploads/sites/80/2018/05/SRC-Resolution-Summary-5.17.18-Final.pdf
Lastly, the opinion piece argues that despite being different types of programs, established for different purposes, and under different legal structures, PVA and charter schools should be evaluated in the same way. We agree that PVA and charter schools must provide high-quality educational opportunities to students. But, because students don’t attend PVA in the same way that students attend charter schools, the means of measuring “high quality” cannot be the same. Some students take only a class or two at PVA, others enroll in a full-time middle- or high-school schedule at PVA, and still others are taking some number of PVA courses in between. We are currently working on the most appropriate way to measure students’ success in this varied-use model. But to suggest that the SPP score for PVA indicates achievement willfully ignores the vast differences in populations served and the unique enrollment design that exists at PVA vs. charter schools or traditional District schools.
Ultimately, it is our goal that PVA provide students with a needed option that retains the greatest flexibility for students, while taking advantage of the most innovative virtual education models, all at the most economical cost. We know that different students need different educational models, and PVA helps us ensure they have no barrier to achieving their limitless potential.
Christina Grant is the assistant superintendent for opportunity and innovation for the School District of Philadelphia, and David Anderson is the principal of the Philadelphia Virtual Academy.