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Schools urge cyber reform

AASD joins group to push for online charter school reform bill

Destiny Holland, (center) Altoona Cyber Academy student, speaks during a press conference at the Altoona Area School District as (from left) ACA teacher Daniel Harber and Dawn Bare, parent of an ACA student, Altoona Area Superintendent Charles Prijatelj and school board President Sharon Bream listen. Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly

With a blitz of press conferences, the League of Pennsylvania Urban Schools, including Altoona Area School District, on Thursday pushed the state Legislature to pass a cyber charter reform bill.

The league wants a reform package that keeps school district money from going to cyber charter schools.

House Bill 1897 is sponsored by Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, and co-sponsored by several others including state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona. Schmitt did not return a call for comment on Thursday.

The reforms would require all Pennsylvania school districts to offer full-time cyber education programs accountable to local communities. Those programs would take the place of cyber charter schools, which the bill would require to cease operation at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

AASD already has the Altoona Cyber Academy competing to attract students away from cyber charter schools.

Altoona Area Superintendent Charles Prijatelj urged support for Sonney’s legislation, saying the school district can provide a higher quality cyber education at 30 percent of the cost.

If the law passes, Prijatelj said Altoona Area would save millions of dollars.

Prijatelj said the district spent $3.3 million on 14 cyber charter schools last year for 250 students. “That’s the amount of money the district pays for annual debt service on the district’s $88 million high school building project.”

Destiny Holland, 18, who started learning through the ACA this year, said, “I am a senior and also attend the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center for welding technology. A benefit that I get from ACA is that I can do my school work while working a job. I work full time at Sheetz,” she said. “I feel the ACA teachers have a better relationship and communication with the cyber students. They schedule a time that you can come in and meet with them one on one.”

ACA students are taught by 20 teachers who perform cyber work after regular brick-and-mortar school hours. That’s a difficult balancing act, teacher Daniel Harber said.

Prijatelj said some more shifting of personnel could occur in the future, but he doesn’t foresee all of the ACA’s teachers ever becoming only cyber educators. He said brick-and-mortar classroom teaching sharpens their abilities for cyber students and keeps opportunities open for cyber students to complete parts of their education in a traditional setting.

Similar press conferences were held by 19 school districts in the state.

Speaking for cyber charter schools, Agora Cyber Charter CEO Michael Conti offered his thoughts on the reform saying, “I’m diametrically opposed. It’s the death knell for school choice,” he said. “It would force kids back into schools and situations that they fled. It’s harmful to kids in cyber charter schools.”

Conti said cyber charter reform could be a good thing, but the current proposals amount to a “slash and burn,” approach.

In a memorandum for support attached to his bill, Sonney states cyber charters could stick around in some capacity.

“Cyber charter schools, instead of being separate school entities, will be able to serve as third-party vendors and work with school districts to offer full-time cyber education programs. School districts will also be given the flexibility in creating their own full-time cyber education programs.”

The ACA started 12 years ago and has grown from about 25 students to 80 in all grade levels.

Altoona Area School Board President Sharon Bream said she believes the district can provide a better cyber education than the current cyber school system plagued by low test scores and graduation rates.

In addition, she said school district budgets all over the state are struggling and savings realized from cyber charter reform could prevent school boards from raising taxes.

“I’m not in favor of cyber charter school, period. But I’m not a fan of locking children in a failing school, either. If students are going to go to a cyber school, I think they should go to Altoona Area’s cyber academy. There’s more accountability and the diploma they earn is from the Altoona Area School District, not a cyber school,” she said.

Sonney’s bill was referred to the House Education Committee on Sept. 30.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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