Published on thetimes-tribune.com
April 7, 2013
A Scranton School District education could soon mean taking core academic courses at home on a computer and attending school only for a chemistry lab or gym class.
As districts across Northeast Pennsylvania try to adapt to student learning styles and compete with cyber charter schools, Scranton is looking at education in a new way.
Last week, the district entered into an agreement with Penn Foster, the Scranton-based online learning provider. The district will work with Penn Foster to offer credit recovery, enrichment classes, blended learning and more options based on the way students learn. And the district could end up saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's exciting," Superintendent William King said. "We're creating multiple pathways to a diploma for our kids."
The district paid charter schools, nearly all of them cyber charter schools, more than $2.2 million last year in tuition for about 200 students. For each regular education student, the district pays $9,520. For every special education student, the district pays $18.142. The amount each school district pays per student varies.
Cyber charters are public schools that are free for families and provide laptops, textbooks and other materials necessary to learn.
Penn Foster will offer services to the district at $800 per student. The district will need to provide the computers and in-house staff, but the cost per student will be much less than what the district pays cyber charters, Mr. King said.
In Lackawanna County, 549 students were enrolled in cyber charter schools as of October. The growth has school districts looking for ways to offer online programs and re-enroll students. With changing learning styles and the presence of cyber charter schools, districts can no longer offer just the traditional model, Mr. King said.
"Public schools have never needed to be competitive," he said. "Now we're looking at rebranding ourselves."
Nationwide, Penn Foster works with 500 school districts and 43,000 high school students. This will be the first time the Oak Street-based company will work with a local school district.
Penn Foster employees are excited to make an impact in their own backyard, said Joe Gagnon, the company's president and CEO.
The traditional model of high school no longer applies to the way students live, Mr. Gagnon said.
Along with offering courses for students looking to make up classes so they can graduate or offering classes for students looking to get ahead, Mr. King envisions some students in a blended program.
In a blended, students would complete coursework at home, but unlike most cyber school programs, would have the option to attend school for certain classes and be involved with extracurricular activities. Those students would graduate with Scranton School District diplomas.
Students who are placed in the district's alternative school, planned for the former Lincoln-Jackson Elementary School, may also have options for cyber programs, Mr. King said.
Penn Foster also plans to pilot a new project-based learning curriculum in Scranton, with feedback from students. The real-life based projects, from building literacy through research of people, to planning a trip on a budget, are interdisciplinary and based on building competency, Mr. Gagnon said.
"We are passionate about engaging the high school student in this process," he said. "They have to help us design how this works."
As enrollments continue to increase at cyber charter schools, districts across Northeast Pennsylvania are trying to implement more online programs that address varied learning styles and find ways to retain and reenroll students.
At Abington Heights, the district is considering implementing online competency credentials, such as offering a course on financial literacy, Assistant Superintendent Thomas Quinn, Ph.D., said. The district is also starting to think about blended programs.
In 2007-08, North Pocono spent $352,000 on charter schools, before 30 percent was reimbursed from the state. The reimbursements stopped two years ago, and for 2011-12, the district spent $725,000 sending 84 students to charter schools, nearly all of them cyber charter schools, Superintendent Bryan McGraw said.
The district has started its own cyber school, developed by district teachers. Twenty students are now in the program, and some of them returned from cyber charter schools, Mr. McGraw said.