This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The District is rolling out the Philadelphia Virtual Academy (PVA), a new online initiative that it hopes will stem the loss of students and tuition to cyber charter schools.
David Anderson, who is experienced in developing online learning programs in city alternative schools, has been named PVA director, and the District has stocked up on MacBook Air laptops for the 6th to 12th graders who will enroll.
The 21st Century Cyber Charter School, the vendor that will provide most of the curriculum and instruction at the virtual school, is geared up to expand, with a plan to hire more teachers depending on enrollment numbers from Philadelphia and other area school systems now experimenting in online education.
Instruction at PVA is set to begin Sept. 3. The cyber academy will follow the same calendar as the District, though it will not close for snow days. But what is not known yet is the final enrollment tally.
According to the District, 118 students had enrolled at PVA as of Monday, Aug. 12. Half of those students were returning from a cyber charter or charter school, where the cost to the District is an average of $10,000 each. About 30 of the total had sought to enroll in either a charter or a cyber charter but then opted for PVA, while 10 students enrolled at PVA after previously being homeschooled or attending a private school, according to information provided to the District by the parents.
But the total is far less than what the District had projected in an announcement made in April. The goal then was 1,000 students at PVA in 2013-14 and 1,200 in 2014-15.
“We’ve been sending communications to those [cyber school] families by mail. We’re saying check out PVA, not only for the quality but for the personalization and the drop-in centers,” said Fran Newberg, the District’s deputy chief of educational technology.
Almost 6,000 city students attend cyber charters. A student attending the Virtual Academy will cost the District just under $6,000 annually, compared with $10,000 per student paid to the state-approved charter schools. In the spring, the District had estimated the endeavor would break even if PVA drew 85 students back from charters.
At a recent informational meeting attended by about half a dozen parents and several students, Anderson stressed that each student’s learning plan would be individualized. Teachers will be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Anderson, the PVA director, told the father of an 11th grader: “We’re going to meet [your daughter] at her level every step of the way.”
Students also will have “face-to-face support,” if needed, with teaching assistants at three proposed drop-in centers: one at District headquarters, 440 N. Broad St.; a second in the Rivera Building on North Fifth Street in the Fairhill section; and a third at Leeds Middle School on East Mount Pleasant Avenue in the Stenton section. The first to open will be at District headquarters.
Each student also will be assigned a liaison who will monitor the student’s progress in all courses and stay in touch with both parents and teachers. A report showing student progress, including time on the computer, current grade, and percent of course completed, will be posted online each Friday, accessible to both students and parents.
The expectation is that students will spend one hour per course per day, according to Anderson.
The District has contracted with the Brandywine Virtual Academy, operated by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, based in Exton, Pa., to offer “turn-key” services, including curriculum and instruction, special education and technical services. Via a subcontract, most courses will be taught by teachers at 21st Century Cyber Charter School, also in Exton.
The 21st Century charter was opened in 2001 at the behest of the directors of the Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County Intermediate Units and the 64 school districts in those counties. At the time, the educators expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of virtual school options. Eleven area school superintendents and three parents make up the current governing board.
According to 21st Century director Jon Marsh, the organization has developed much of its own curriculum in alignment with state standards and the Common Core state standards initiative.
In recent years, 21st Century also has become a provider of instruction to districts that have opened their own cyber schools. The districts typically contract with Brandywine, which then hires the Exton cyber school for coursework.
“I would wager 250-plus of the 500 districts in the Commonwealth are doing this on a small scale, at least. They want to attract those families back,” said Marsh.
Last year, 21st Century started with an enrollment of nearly 800 students, including some from Philadelphia, though that number dropped to about 600 — a typical attrition rate in cyber schools, according to Marsh. In addition, the school delivered just over 1,000 credits to 340 students enrolled in home district cyber schools.
The trend to online education also has impacted 21st Century. In its most recent financial report to the state, the school noted that several of its teachers, trained in online instruction, had been hired away as districts started up their own programs. The teachers are not unionized, and their average salary this past year was $54,100, with extra merit pay averaging $1,300, according to Marsh.
Marsh said his school sees “opportunities for growth with districts like Philadelphia. … Our niche will be working with the districts.”
Opening one or more satellite offices in Philadelphia is a possibility, depending on future enrollment, he noted. The school, now situated in an office park on Route 30 east of Exton, recently purchased a $1.4 million facility in Downingtown, Chester County.
Christine Roussey, whose two daughters are enrolled in 21st Century, praised the school’s curriculum and said teachers there “are engaging and have high energy.”
When one daughter suffered a bout of mononucleosis and fell behind, “teachers made sure she completed all the work, as if they were in a brick-and-mortar school,” she said.
At the Philadelphia informational session, Heriangely Cruz Rojas said her daughter was being bullied — a common reason that families choose virtual school — and that online education would “give her the opportunity to keep learning and not fall back.”
Driss El-Bakhadoui complained that his child’s teacher was too often absent.
“We’re teaching him fractions at home. He should go to school for what? Wasting time?” asked El-Bakhadoui. “We’re going to try this.”