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What Cyber Charter Schools Have to Offer

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In his State of the State address, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell made a pitch for both quality charters schools and virtual learning schools. Virginia has only three operating charter schools, and the concept of virtual schools is still a new frontier. But around the country, both are expanding – often together – and they offer lessons for the Old Dominion.



Until about 20 years ago there were no charter schools in the United States. Today there are more than 4,500 with total enrollments approaching perhaps 2,000,000. Such growth is significant by itself, but numbers alone don’t show the degree of innovation in the movement. Here are some lessons, partially drawn from Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars, a December report from Vermont‘s Ethan Allen Institute.



The most unusual, found largely in the charter school movement but generally ignored, if not actively opposed by traditional public school districts, are what are known as virtual or cyber schools. Twenty-five states now have students who are educated through virtual charter schools; a major example being the Florida Virtual School, a public charter founded in 1997 which now enrolls approximately 100,000 students.



Midland, Pennsylvania offers another example and highlights the potential advantage of virtual schooling for a district whose board and superintendent are open to meaningful change. In 2000 this was a declining steel town and the school district discontinued its own high school due to a lack of students. For some time Midland had contracted with other local districts. That situation changed, however, when the only neighboring district in the county that would continue such an arrangement would only do so on a year by year contract with no assurance of continuing; leaving Midland with the distinction of not only being a district with no high school but one that had to send its students across the state line into Ohio.



This worked for a time, but the arrangement was less than ideal. Also in 2000, Midland opened its own virtual school, the Pennsylvania Cyber School. Originally thought of as a service for its own school-age students the school has witnessed astounding growth far beyond anything anticipated by the local board or superintendent.



Today the PA Cyber School has a 250-course online curriculum to nearly 8,000 K-12 students across the state and 75 percent of them in the target 9-12 grades. It has 230 full and part-time teachers with a pupil-teacher ratio of better than 30-to-1. Most unusual, or literally even unique, in 2006-07 the school met all 21 of the No Child Left Behind Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) targets. Perhaps somewhere a traditional public school district can match this but none can surpass a 100 percent success rate. It’s said that barely half of traditional public schools qualify for AYP.



Success of a somewhat different but still impressive order is the independent non-sectarian Oak Meadow School. Based in Brattleboro, Vermont and founded in 1975, it now enrolls approximately 1,000 students throughout the United States and in several foreign countries. The students are about evenly divided between K-8 and high school, with graduates from high school being invited to a formal graduation ceremony held in Vermont each June.



Oak Meadow is accredited through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and also the Commission on International and Trans-regional Accreditation, which ensures that the work of its students throughout the world will be recognized by other schools, colleges and universities.



The Oak Meadow curriculum is the result of over 30 years experience with distance-learning students, research into proven educational principles and the creative efforts of numerous teachers and talented curriculum developers. Its educational philosophy is based upon four principles of learning: maintain rigorous academic standards, involve the whole child, cooperate with students natural developmental stages and adapt to each student’s unique learning style.



With this educational philosophy as a guide, Oak Meadow is committed to regular curriculum revisions and improvements built on rigorous academic standards. Teachers take an active role in curriculum revisions, based upon their experiences with students. To graduate, students complete a wide variety of required and elective courses. For advanced high school students, over 25 Advanced Placement and computer technology courses provide a depth of study and additional college preparation.



While not all charter schools are as innovative or successful as these, they show what is possible when charter school laws are viewed as opportunities and not obstacles.

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