This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Like most parents, Clea Jones starts her day by waking up her children and getting them ready for school. But instead of putting them on a school bus, navigating public transportation, or carpooling with other students, Jones’ children only have to walk down the stairs of their Southwest Philadelphia home. Jones’ three school-aged children – 10th grader Muhammed, 5th grader Aaliyah, and 1st grader Jameel Burgess — are students at Agora Cyber Charter School, one of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters.
The option to attend school completely online is relatively new, but the number of cyber charter schools and the number of students attending them have increased dramatically over the last few years. About 200 cyber charter schools serve 200,000 students nationally, according to a series of reports published in October by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Mathematica Policy Research, and the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Half of the national cyber charter population is concentrated in the three states where enrollment is highest: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
Pennsylvania has about 35,000 students attending online charter schools, nearly 18 percent of the national total, making it the state with the second-highest cyber charter population.
And cyber enrollment shows no signs of abating in Pennsylvania, despite the schools’ consistently poor performance. In the commonwealth, 11 out of 14 cyber charter schools have a graduation rate below 67 percent (the federal cutoff point for a “low graduation rate high school”), according to a recent national study by America’s Promise Alliance. The same number have a substandard academic performance score on the state’s School Performance Profile, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Interviews with parents shed some light on why there is such a consistent demand for cyber charters.
“Some of the parents actually had their children in good charter schools and they still had problems with the teachers and how they’re teaching, or the screening, or maybe their child wasn’t able to keep up in the classroom, or they felt that their child wasn’t getting enough,” explained Clea Jones. “It’s a range of decisions that parents make that they take their children out of the public school system,” keep them home, and enroll in cybers.
Parents say that these schools offer a much-needed alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar education, which does not work for all students. Students who are more mobile, like Olympic athletes or performers, need an option that is flexible enough to fit their lifestyle. Other students, particularly in high school, may have to work or tend to other family obligations. Cyber charters offer a more flexible, at-your-own-pace education that can be completed in these circumstances. For some of these students, the other option may be to disengage from school completely.
John Spencer, of ACT Academy, a small cyber charter school in Northwest Philadelphia, argues that the small school model and the ability to individualize curriculum and instruction are appealing for students who have dropped out or have not been successful in a traditional classroom.
“We have some students who have children. We have students who live in homeless shelters. So some of of our situations are very different,” said Spencer.
Cyber charters are becoming an option for other groups of students and parents as well. For example, students who have suffered from bullying, who learn at a different pace (either significantly faster or slower) than their peers, or who have been unsuccessful in brick-and-mortar schools for academic or behavioral reasons are increasingly turning to online schooling. Parents in rural areas are also drawn to cybers because they may have very few other options.
One concern for parent Melissa Cleveland was her local school’s unrelenting emphasis on PSSA test scores rather than a broader sense of education. A resident of Claysburg, a rural town about an hour west of Harrisburg, she felt that cyber charters offered her a choice that she otherwise would not have.
“The biggest issue is that they’re not teaching our kids reading, writing, arithmetic, history anymore. It’s all about how to pass the PSSA so the school can look better so they can get more funding, and it’s not working,” explained Cleveland, “I looked in the area to see what we had available, and to be honest, there’s not a lot of other options.”
In contrast, for parents from struggling urban school districts like Philadelphia, keeping students away from violence is one of the biggest concerns.
Jones said, “With so much violence and stuff that’s going on in the schools, I mean, it’s up to the parent. You can’t even stay anymore in the area that you live at, because all areas, they may have violence and stuff in the schools.”
Even if the academic performance of cyber charters leaves something to be desired, cyber education still might make sense to parents when they consider the current state of many high schools in urban areas like Philadelphia. Parents whose children would otherwise be assigned to a local high school with perhaps an even lower academic performance score and a history of violence could gain some peace of mind when their children learn in the safety of their own home.
For example, ACT Academy has an academic performance score of 36.1 from the Pennsylvania Department of Education; 70 is what PDE considers acceptable. Strawberry Mansion High School, near ACT Academy’s headquarters, has an academic performance score of 30.2 and was on the state’s Persistently Dangerous Schools List for years.
Jones said she decided to send her children to Agora mostly because she did not think they were being adequately challenged in their local district brick-and-mortar school, but she also said that for many parents, concerns about safety and ongoing turmoil throughout Philadelphia’s public schools account for the greater interest and enrollment in cyber charters.
Agora has about 8,000 students from across the state, and currently about 30 percent (2,354) of them reside in Philadelphia. Because cyber charter schools are not regulated by local school districts, they enroll students from anywhere in the state. Some cyber charters more closely resemble small school districts than individual schools.
“For me, I would think if I had to put my children in a public school that they would definitely be in mixed company with problem students, and having a child in that type of environment I’m sure is a distraction to that child,” said Jones of her local schools, “I also don’t think that that teacher will be able to do their job fully to the extent that they need to with their class if they have to deal with problem children in their classroom. It takes away from the learning experience where they need to be focusing on the children.”
For some students, like Jones’ children, the model has been incredibly successful. Muhammed is in the Junior National Honor Society. Both Muhammed and Aaliyah have consistently scored "advanced" on the PSSAs, and all three children are in accelerated math tracks.
Similarly, Cleveland’s two 7th-grade children, Zachary and Gianna, have experienced success at Agora. Gianna was able to skip a grade due to academic achievement. Both students have been attending Agora for four years.
The key to their success is the oversight that the students receive at home. Both Cleveland and Jones are strict about their children’s daily routine, attending classes, making sure work is done on time or ahead of time, and other more structured and disciplined parts of schooling.
Even though both Cleveland’s and Jones’ children are allowed by the school to do some of their work on their own time instead of attending the live virtual class, Cleveland said, “I do not let them pick and choose. They go to their classes, period.”
Similarly, Jones’ rule is that her children are not allowed to miss class. By the time those classes start, all three of her kids are sitting at their designated work spaces. Each day, Jones sits with Jameel, to help guide him through his classes, but she can easily see the older two children and is attuned to what they are working on.
Cyber schools rely heavily on the presence of “learning coaches” or “facilitators” for each student, who are almost always parents or guardians. Parents are responsible for making sure their children attend class, complete assignments, and are actually learning. Especially in elementary school, this involves being actively involved in daily lessons. It is a big undertaking, and both Jones and Cleveland stressed how important it is that parents understand what they are getting into and know that it takes being home with your children all day, making sure that they are learning.
“I don’t think it works for everybody, but I know it is working for me and my family.” said Jones, “with Agora, as a parent, you need to be involved. It’s not like you can just sit your child in front of the computer and leave them.”
Indeed, it doesn’t work for all families. Erich DeHaven and his ex-wife decided to enroll their daughter in PA Leadership Charter School (PALCS) as a compromise between complete home schooling and a traditional brick-and-mortar school. But after a few years, DeHaven started seeing that his daughter was falling behind and had serious gaps in her knowledge. After some investigation, DeHaven realized that assignments and tests were being completed at odd hours and that his daughter was not logging into the system for days at a time,
At the end of the term, when deadlines for assignments were looming, assignments were being submitted even when his daughter was staying with him and they had not been working on those assignments. This led him to believe that the girl’s mother, the learning coach in charge of facilitating their daughter’s education, was not providing a structure conducive to learning. Eventually, DeHaven removed his daughter from the school and now sends her to the Waldorf School of Philadelphia. Their experience at PALCS had caused his daughter to be significantly behind academically and they had her repeat 4th grade to catch up, he said.
The Mathematica report on cyber charter schools showed that “many online charter schools — ranging from 43 percent in high school to 78 percent in elementary school — expect parents to actively participate in the student’s instruction. The schools are clearly aware that the success of their approach depends on substantial parental support.”
The issue with this model is that some parents may not be qualified or prepared to handle the kind of responsibility for their children’s education that is necessary for success. The assumption that all parents are qualified to take charge of their children’s education even calls into question the necessity for an outside-of-the-home education system at all.
Many cybers do hire coaches to be liaisons to the families. Monique Keller, formerly such a liaison for Agora, said that she had parents in her caseload who were not facilitating their children’s education effectively, but that Agora’s teachers had ways of detecting that something was off. These teachers relied on the liaisons to intercede.
“Some were definitely difficult,” Keller said, but she also said that the family liaisons were most often able to deal with the situation. If not, she would have conversations about potentially finding a better fit for that family in another school.
Not all cyber charters in Pennsylvania have these family liaisons. Keller believes that the system set up at Agora allows the school to more thoroughly determine the status of each student’s education.
Although the need for an alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar education may be clear, significant questions about the current model remain. One is the reliance on parents to facilitate their children’s education. Another is oversight: Only the state, not the local school district, has responsibility for monitoring and regulating these schools.
Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said that the only leverage PDE has over these schools is the process of granting or revoking their charters, which are valid for years at a time.
School districts chafe because they are responsible for paying the per-pupil rate to cyber charter schools, even though they have no say over how those students from their district are educated. Some districts in Pennsylvania have opened their own cyber schools in order to combat this issue while offering the same type of online environment to their parents. These schools have seen mixed results.
One way to drive parents away from the cyber charter option could be to improve their local public schools.
“I’m sure, out there, there are maybe public schools, private schools or whatever, charter schools, that have a good relationship with teachers and a lot of the students are excelling,” said Jones. But she feels she doesn’t have an option that meets her standards.
“When I talk to some other people who live around here, I can kind of compare and see with other children how my children are progressing. Sometimes, maybe my expectations are maybe a little too high, you know. I don’t know, I just don’t believe in holding children back.”
But ultimately, Jones said that her children’s experience is something that should not be limited to cyber schools. She would like to see more flexibility in her local schools so that if a child is working at a faster pace, they are able to excel and move forward, while a child who is struggling can get the individual support needed.
“I would like to see a lot of this in the regular public schools,” she said.