This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Michelle Melendez, the distractions at her local high school were too much. She was not getting her work done; she was doing poorly. “I was a troubled child,” she said.
So she enrolled in the ASPIRA Bilingual Virtual Charter School in the fall of 2011 – the school was brand-new then – and she says she has no regrets.
“A lot of people think it’s easier than regular school, but you have to do your work. You do learn. … You get to your goals,” said Melendez, 16, a junior.
For students at risk of falling behind or dropping out, one of the state’s numerous cyber schools can serve as a second-chance high school. Cybers have been growing in size – and also coming under increased scrutiny over their academic results.
Students’ reasons for enrolling are understandably varied. Each young person has his or her own story: being bullied, fears for safety, pregnancy and child care issues, poor academic records, in need of make-up credits, being over-age.
The ASPIRA school offers grades K to 12, but more than 100 of its 138 students are in grades 9 to 12. Despite its name, coursework in the upper grades is in English; bilingual studies are offered in the early grades.
“This is a valuable option,” said Sheila Ramos, the school’s counselor. “These students are in situations where they can’t go to a brick-and-mortar school. “
School director Lucila Paramo said the program draws students who are independent and motivated.
“They tell me the coursework standards are higher than at their regular school. It’s not easy. The program is designed in such a way that you cannot continue to the next topic until you show you understand what you’re learning now,” Paramo said.
All but four of the 22 seniors who completed the program last year graduated, she said. By a recent tally, the school was overseeing coursework for 30 students in ninth grade, 30 in 10th, 27 in 11th, and 19 in 12th. Most students are from Philadelphia.
Officially, the cyber’s state graduation rate for 2011-12 is listed as 56 percent. The state does the calculation by tracking a cohort of students who entered high school four years before. Some of the cyber’s students – who may have missed or repeated a year – entered high school then and so are part of a cohort that should have graduated by now.
The ASPIRA program is small compared with the largest cyber education providers in Pennsylvania – and students can enroll in any of them, without consideration to district or city boundaries. As of February, the providers serving the largest numbers of Philadelphia students in grades K-12 were Agora Cyber with 2,857; Commonwealth Connections Academy, 915; Pennsylvania Cyber, 446; and Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, 417.
Superintendent William Hite has announced plans for the District to open its own online-only charter for Philadelphia students to minimize the amount of funds it pays out to the other cybers, which last year approached $48 million for nearly 5,000 students. The number of students now tops 5,600.
The state has 16 cyber charter schools serving more than 32,000 students this year. One of the newest, Solomon Charter School Inc., of Philadelphia, is facing revocation by the state for several violations of charter school law.
The online schools have come under fire for poor performance, including low graduation rates. None of the 12 cybers in operation a year ago met federal academic performance targets for the year.
The graduation rates reported by the state for some cybers are particularly low for students classified as economically disadvantaged (see chart).
To address the issue, the 21st Century Cyber Charter School, among the stronger-performing cybers last year, added two to three months of online tutoring specifically for its economically disadvantaged students. The result was to raise the graduation rate about 10 points, to 48 percent.
This year, those students have been receiving the extra help all year long, according to 21st Century’s director, Jon Marsh. The school for grades 6 to 12 is run by the Intermediate Unit education agencies for Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware counties.
Area high school students have been hired to do one-on-one tutoring with their online peers – a Downingtown student tutoring calculus, for instance. In addition, he said, each teacher is a “learning coach” to a group of students. “This is more than home room. The coaches really nurse the kids through the process. We are really reaching out to those kids,” he said.
Yet many students who enroll in cyber schools withdraw, an attrition trend that Marsh is researching in pursuit of a doctorate in educational leadership at Drexel University.
“There’s a lot of in and out in cyber schools,” Marsh said. About 25 percent of students withdraw, with most of them returning to their home schools, he said. In the last two months, 64 students left his school, among a student body totaling about 800. “Twenty-five percent is a pretty solid number. Everybody is having the problem,” Marsh said.
Almost invariably, he said, students enrolling in the upper grades come after falling off track to completing their education. “They are coming to us behind. Very few come to us on pace to graduate. If they were on pace, why would they leave their local school?”
On a recent day, Melendez was at the ASPIRA school’s headquarters on North Fifth Street, sitting at a big round table with Isaiah O’Hannon, 17, also a junior. She was studying geometry; O’Hannon was working on an earth science chapter. Both were using ThinkPad laptops: cyber schools typically provide a computer and computer connection to each student upon enrollment.
“Going to cyber school, you can get away from a lot of stuff – it’s not like you have a teacher in the classroom yelling at other students to pay attention. And it’s less boring – you don’t have to sit through classes being bored, you just get your work done,” said O’Hannon.
At the same time, “you really have to put your head to it,” he said. “It’s been pretty difficult because you don’t have any teachers standing in front of you, keeping you on task. You have to learn to manage your time, go to the websites. You have more responsibility than in regular school.”
O’Hannon left Olney Charter High School, where he was unhappy, last spring, enrolling for cyber courses on the recommendation of a counselor.
But he said he may opt for a regular high school next year. “I’m more of a hands-on person. I’m not so much self-taught,” he said.
Melendez said she was quite happy sticking with cyber classes. “If you are responsible and do your work every day, you can do the study guides and finish faster,” she said. “It’s been a good opportunity for me.”