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Pa. cyber schools offer alternative education

October 03, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Back-to-school sales had just gotten under way when the Richardson family received books, supplies and a pair of computers on its doorstep.

Hannah Richardson, 7, uses one of those computers to enter a virtual classroom. Once logged in, she speaks into a microphone to communicate with her teacher and dozens of other students enrolled in the Agora Cyber Charter School.

"Hannah's never physically met her teacher," said her mother, Mary Laura Richardson.

Hannah's parents withdrew her from the Waynesboro Area School District midway through kindergarten. Hannah felt uncomfortable in the traditional school environment, and her parents felt the child was not being challenged in her best subjects.

Hannah's brother, Sam Richardson, 5, has started kindergarten studies in cyber school.

Matthew and Mary Laura Richardson's initial concerns about the cyber school being overly computer-oriented disappeared once the materials arrived. Inside the boxes were workbooks, paints, a scale, magnetic phonics boards and models, all of which arrived free of charge from the Philadelphia area.

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Cyber schools are funded by the school district in which the student physically lives. For instance, the Waynesboro Area School District pays for Hannah's education.

The amount paid is equal to the school district's regular "per pupil" cost, according to Michael Race, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The problem is, he said, the amount can range from about $5,000 in one school district to $12,000 in another. Legislation before the Pennsylvania General Assembly would equalize the tuition amounts.

"In some cases, cyber charters are making more money than it takes to educate students," Race said, explaining that Pennsylvania's auditor general found spending disparities and surpluses in some cyber school accounts.

The 11 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania had a total enrollment of 15,838 in the 2006-07 school year. Since they are considered public schools, students can earn a diploma.

Mary Laura Richardson feels her children are getting better study materials from the tax dollars.

Cyber schools "have more money for the curriculum because they're not paying for the gas for the bus and food in the cafeteria," she said.

Hannah and Sam start their academic day at 8 a.m. Both have been engrossed recently with the Brothers Grimm tales and related lessons, like one prompting the children to find Germany on a map.

"You've got to see this story," Hannah said. "It's really cute."

The cyber school allows Hannah to learn at her own pace. She is enrolled in third-grade language arts and math, and she participates in a gifted program and foreign language learning.

While Mary Laura Richardson feels her daughter has benefited from the flexibility and independent study, she said she could imagine that some children might struggle if enrolled in cyber school for the wrong reasons.

Race said the state has concerns because cyber schools often perform poorly on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) standardized tests. They've also had difficulty meeting "adequate yearly progress" benchmarks aligned with No Child Left Behind expectations.

Agora has been placed in "school improvement II" status, the last classification before state officials can step in and impose consequences like curriculum changes. One of its problem areas is math proficiency, according to www.paayp.com.

Hannah visited a testing center to take the PSSA and did well, according to her mother.

"I think my favorite subject would be science. Science is really interesting," said Hannah, who recently studied the metric system.

Sam enjoys math and has completed 70 percent of his kindergarten math curriculum. The boy guessed that he can count to 199.

"He could probably count to 200," Hannah said.

"Yeah, probably that," Sam responded.

The Richardson children spend most afternoons exploring the outdoors. Also, Hannah delights in spending a couple hours singing, especially "Part of Your World" made famous by her favorite Disney princess, Ariel, from "The Little Mermaid."

The bubbly girl socializes in church, dance classes and play groups. Her brother loves soccer.

"You just have to do stuff and get out there," Mary Laura Richardson said.

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