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Public Cyber Schools: Strengthening the Promise of Public Education

November 5, 2007
The Altoona Mirror
By: Sharon Williams

The promise of public education is to serve every child and to help them reach their full potential.

This is an immense challenge for all educators, especially considering the diversity of children public education serves. Every child is different. They have a variety of needs. Some children are gifted learners and some have academic challenges. Some children thrive in group learning environments, while others excel with one-to-one instruction.

Parents and teachers know that, like fingerprints, no one child is the same. It is why they are increasingly looking for more public education options and new ways to serve kids.

One of the most innovative education models that emerged in the past decade are online public schools. Demand for online learning is skyrocketing across the country and enrollment in online public schools is among the fastest growing trends in education today. The Peak Group research firm estimated one million enrollments in K-12 online learning in 2007.

Pennsylvania is nationally-recognized as a pioneer state in providing students quality online public school options (known as "cyber schools" in PA). There are now more than 20,000 students across the state enrolled in full-time public cyber schools.

To celebrate this achievement, public cyber schools from around the state will convene in the State Capitol on Nov. 20 for the first-ever Cyber 101 Day on Hill. This day will be used to show how our schools work through live demonstrations and to tell our story to lawmakers and key policymakers.

The story we will tell is this:

One of the great strengths of Pennsylvania's public cyber schools is that any child, regardless of their economic, geographic, or academic circumstance, can enroll. And just like any public school, there is no cost for students to enroll. Children who live rural, urban and suburban communities, whether low or high income, can all attend the same public school. These are truly equal opportunity schools.

In public cyber schools, children are able to learn at their own pace outside the traditional classroom - from home, on the road, in a library, or whatever environment best suits them - and still have the benefit of personal instruction and close relationships with certified teachers, along with connection to a school community. They have the benefit of a flexible schedule, but, just like their peers in traditional schools, must participate in state assessment tests and meet the academic and attendance requirements, and all other accountability standards.

At my school, Agora Cyber Charter School, every student receives an individualized education program, customized to meet their personal academic needs and learning style. Our students receive web-based lessons and assessments developed by K12, plus boxes of books, materials, science supplies, art and music equipment, and much more. They also receive a computer system on loan from the school along with Internet-reimbursement to guarantee that any child, anywhere, can connect to the school. We bring the school to the student rather than the student to the school.

Not all children are suited for the traditional classroom or are able to learn in the confines of the set schedule typically followed in most schools. Not all feel comfortable or even safe in school buildings. These students should not be forced into one-size-fits-all model. For many, public cyber schools are the answer.

There are countless numbers of students who have benefited from the opportunity Pennsylvania's public cyber schools provide. They cover the entire spectrum: kids with special needs, academic challenges, or medical issues; gifted students; victims of bullying; students who dropped out of schools that failed them; students that fell behind academically; and students that simply need more personalized learning.

Children across the state are thriving in public cyber schools and the popularity of these schools increases every year. Nevertheless, some opponents are proposing severe funding cuts to public cyber schools, which threaten to eliminate education programs for kids and squeeze these schools out of existence (even though public cyber schools already receive much less funding than traditional public schools). This would be a huge step backwards for Pennsylvania and, most disturbingly, hurt thousands of kids.

Unlike traditional public schools, every child in a public cyber school made the choice to enroll. They are not assigned to attend these schools based solely on their zip code, nor are they forced to stay. Their choice to enroll in public cyber schools should not diminish them in the eyes of policymakers and others who believe in public education. These kids are public school students and deserve to be treated equally and fairly.

Pennsylvania's public cyber schools are a success story. They are helping to strengthen the promise of public education to serve the individual needs of every child.

Sharon Williams is a former public school teacher and administrator and has been leading public cyber schools for the past 5 years. She is currently the Head of School for Agora Cyber Charter School:

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