This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School District plans to launch its own online school this summer, part of an effort to reclaim thousands of students and millions of dollars now going to independently operated cyber charters.
The proposed Philadelphia Virtual Academy would offer students a combination of "anytime learning" in their homes and in-person support from teachers and other staff at "learning centers" around the city. District officials hope to immediately enroll as many as 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite described the plan, a first for the District, as both a financial necessity and an educational opportunity.
"We want to begin reclaiming some of the students who have attended other options," Hite said. "Our long-term objective is to redefine the notion of virtual education."
The proposal is subject to approval by the School Reform Commission, which will vote Thursday on whether to approve a contract worth as much as $15 million to the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which would operate the school.
Almost 6,000 Philadelphia students attend cyber charters. Cybers, which are authorized and overseen by the state, are projected to receive $60 million in per-student payments from the District this year. None of the state’s 12 cyber charters in existence last spring met their federally mandated academic performance targets. Two of the largest cybers in the state, PA Cyber and Agora, are involved in federal corruption investigations.
Hite said enrolling a student in the Virtual Academy would cost the District about $4,100 less per child, per year than the state-approved cybers. If the new online school were to draw just 85 students back from cybers next year, he said, the District would break even.
"There’s a cost savings with every student who enrolls," Hite said.
District officials are projecting a budget shortfall of at least $242 million for next year, which they hope to close using a combination of new state and city funds and deep concessions from staff.
A blended approach
Officials envision students in the Philadelphia Virtual Academy students logging into their District-provided laptop in the morning, checking their email to learn about their assignments, and working at their own pace and on their own schedule through lessons provided online.
Students would be expected to log in for an hour each day for each subject they take.
Once a week, students would participate in a live, interactive "virtual office" with a teacher and their classmates.
Unlike cyber charters, said Hite, PVA will also have substantial freedom to provide students with complementary in-person learning opportunities.
"There will be drop-in learning centers with teacher assistants, administrators, and special education support across the city," he said.
The first learning center will be established inside District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. Others are expected to open in District buildings around the city, at sites accessible by public transportation. The learning centers would be staffed by teaching assistants, student support liaisons, and special education providers.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently announced that it was moving to shutter the Philadelphia-based Solomon Cyber Charter for attempting a similar approach. Officials said Solomon was violating state law by requiring students to engage in significant face-to-face learning at a physical location.
The District will not be bound by such restrictions.
"For us, this is a first step in exploring what virtual education can be," Hite said.
PVA students will also be able to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities held at their neighborhood schools.
The school will have an administrator — a position akin to a principal, but with different responsibilities that remain fuzzy.
Teachers will be state-certified, responsible for about 125 students each. Some, but not all, teachers are expected to be unionized. Teachers will have contracts with the Chester County Intermediate Unit.
According to a District press release, the Chester County IU "currently provides online programs for students in 38 District-run virtual academies" around Pennsylvania and was also involved in the founding and operation of the 21st Century Cyber Charter School, based in Downingtown.
The IU would receive an average of $5,700 per student it enrolls, up to a maximum of $15 million over two years. The District now pays about $9,800 per student to cybers.
"We are very excited about the opportunity to partner with the School District of Philadelphia in this online venture," said Joseph O’Brien, CCIU’s executive director.
Robert Fayfich, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he welcomed the news.
"I think it’s a good thing for parents and children, because it gives them options," Fayfich said. "As long as it’s focused on improving education for children rather than just competing for the money, we are absolutely supportive of it."
But Fayfich also offered a word of caution. In Western Pennsylvania, a similar effort is folding after just one year.
There, the STREAM Academy cyber charter was founded by the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit, with 10 area school districts buying in. But the school enrolled just 333 students in its first year, resulting in a projected deficit of $1.56 million, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"The quality and extensiveness of [cyber] programs varies tremendously across the state," said Fayfich. "It’s really all across the board, from marginal to very good."
District officials expressed confidence that they will be able to draw Philadelphia students back from existing cybers – and prevent additional students from choosing to leave the District.
Sara Schwartz Chrismer, a special assistant in the District’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, said the District talked extensively with parents who now have students in cybers. They found that parents are looking for more opportunities for their children to socialize, as well as a broader range of supports for students’ non-academic needs.
"They wanted the opportunity to work with their peers and also to receive more personal attention for their studies," said Schwartz Chrismer.
District officials project that about 75 percent of the students who enroll in the Philadelphia Virtual Academy would come from cyber charters, with the remainder coming from District-run schools.
The District will soon begin hosting recruitment events and open houses for interested parents, though no dates have yet been set.
An orientation for Philadelphia Virtual Academy is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 19-21.
This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.
A previous version of this story misidentified one of the charters involved in a federal corruption investigation. It is PA Cyber not PA Virtual.