Published Online: June 4, 2013
Published in Print: June 5, 2013, as Urban Districts Creating Virtual Schools
Includes correction(s): July 10, 2013

Large Urban School Districts Creating Their Own Virtual Schools

The Philadelphia school system will open a new, full-time online school this coming fall, a program that the district promises will offer the academic flexibility and customized learning that many students and families demand.

But district officials also see the virtual program as bringing at least one clear benefit to the city school system itself: the ability to compete.

Leaders of the financially troubled district see the online program as a tool to stave off families' temptation to choose "cyber charters" and other options outside the district.

In creating its online program, Philadelphia joins a number of other big-city school districts that have founded virtual schools as a way to either add to the list of school choices available to parents or persuade families that have already chosen alternative online programs outside their systems to come back.

"It's part of a menu to create educational options for parents," said Fran Newberg, the deputy chief of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the 138,000-student Philadelphia district. "We have families out there that want this option."

While state-run virtual schools are relatively common, the number of individual districts creating online programs is growing, and that model is likely to be one of the biggest areas of expansion in the online world over the next three years, said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a Vienna, Va.-based group that is an advocate for virtual education options. Large-city districts are part of that growth, she said.

Urban Virtual School Models

Urban school districts have created or are launching online education programs serving different purposes and different student populations.

Albuquerque, N.M.
Starts this fall
New online program in the 89,000-student district will expand on an original, part-time virtual program, which offered credit recovery and advanced study. The new program will offer full-time online courses and serve 150 students its first year.

Denver
Started in 2003
Opened with six students serving enrollees with medical problems and other scheduling needs. The virtual school now accommodates about 400 students from the Denver district and other parts of the state, including those living out of the state or country temporarily.

Pittsburgh
Started in 2012-13
It began the year with 150 students, though many left the online program. The district contracts with a nearby state intermediate unit to help operate the school, which serves a mix of students seeking flexibility, advanced studies, credit recovery, or nontraditional academic environments.

Philadelphia
Starts this fall
Officials in the 138,000-student district hope to enroll at least 500 students in grades 6-12 the first year and lure the 4,000 city students now being served by cyber charters outside Philadelphia back to the district system.

Urban districts are attempting to meet many of the same needs that other online programs are, such as providing options for students who have struggled academically or behaviorally in regular schools, Ms. Patrick said.

But many larger city school systems are also more likely to be trying to meet the needs of students who are working and need flexible schedules, as well as those who need to recover academic credits and might otherwise be in danger of dropping out.

Luring Students Back

The new Philadelphia Virtual Academy is being built to serve all those needs, district officials say. They hope the online school, which has a targeted enrollment of between 500 and 1,000 students its first year, will draw back at least some of the 4,864 students who live within Philadelphia's city limits but who take classes full-time online through cyber charters across the state.

In announcing plans to launch the virtual school earlier this year, district Superintendent William R. Hite, hired a year ago, cast the effort as part of a broader plan to develop new school models that offer "innovation in educational delivery" and appeal to parents. He specifically mentioned Pennsylvania's cyber charters, which can draw students from districts across the state, as competitors.

"Our goal is to draw families back to the district by making Philadelphia Virtual Academy the preferred choice for parents and students who want a quality online education," Mr. Hite said in a statement.

Philadelphia has been continually dogged by financial crises and declines in student enrollment. School district officials, facing a deficit of $300 million for a system with a budget of $2.7 billion, recently have been considering deep cuts to programs and services. Earlier this year, the district announced plans to make several school closures, saying the school system had been paying for thousands of empty seats in those schools.

Some districts' online programs are managed by private companies, an arrangement that has drawn criticism. Ms. Newberg said Philadelphia officials' decision to choose the Chester County Intermediate Unit, a nonprofit education agency, was based on the organization's track record in working with districts, not its tax status. The unit is located in Downingtown, west of Philadelphia.

Chester County officials are working with the Philadelphia district to market the program to parents, through written materials and community meetings. The marketing is also evident in the virtual academy's design. The district strategically placed three "drop-in" centers, where students can get person-to-person academic help and support, in neighborhoods where the exodus of students to cyber charters has been particularly strong, Ms. Newberg said.

In crafting the program, Philadelphia officials looked across the state and consulted with leaders in the Pittsburgh school system, which opened an online school serving full-time students last fall.

As in Philadelphia, a goal of district leaders in launching the Pittsburgh Online Academy was to lure families who are attending statewide cyber charters back into the 25,000-student school system.

About 800 students within the Pittsburgh city limits attend cyber charters in other parts of the state, costing the school system about $12 million, said Mark McClinchie, the coordinator of virtual learning for the district. If the district could keep even a portion of those students, it would help the district enormously, he said.

"Every year, we want to eat into that number as much as possible," Mr. McClinchie said of the families who leave for cyber options.

To do that, the district also will need to retain more students in its online program. Of the 150 students who enrolled, just 47 finished this school year. Those who quit decided the academic model did not work for them, or cited child care or work conflicts, among other reasons, he said.

"We hope to improve on that front," Mr. McClinchie said.

Pleasing Parents

Meeting the demands of parents and students seeking a customized academic schedule was a motivator for Albuquerque officials in planning the launch of a new, full-time online school in the fall.

The online center is a piece of a broader plan to give parents a wider range of educational choices for their children, including college-prep and early-college high school options, said Shelly Green, the chief academic officer for the 89,000-student district. Much of the demand has come from families of high-achieving students, she said.

The school will begin with a projected enrollment of 150 students, and grow over time. The district will operate the school itself. "That's one of the reasons we're starting small," Ms. Green said. "We want to make sure we do it well."

Related Blog

In Pennsylvania, school systems face competition for students from 16 cyber charters, publicly funded online schools that enroll about 35,000 students from nearly all the state's 500 districts.

But with growth has come criticism from those who point to cybercharters' lackluster academic showing on various measures, including state tests. Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said those measures tend to be misleading, partly because they don't account for the academic shortcomings that many online students, who have struggled in traditional environments, bring with them.

Mr. Fayfich said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the benefits the new Philadelphia online school could bring. He also questioned, though, whether Philadelphia district officials are creating the program for financial, rather than academic reasons. (Philadelphia district officials were not available to respond to that comment.)

Ultimately, families' allegiance to the online school, or to a competing cyber charter or other option, "is going to be based on what's best for their child," Mr. Fayfich said. "The people who will ultimately determine [whether the Philadelphia school succeeds] are the parents."

Vol. 32, Issue 33, Pages 12-13

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

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