POTTSTOWN PA – With August less than a week away, many Pottsgrove School District families have already visited local retailers for back-to-school specials on everything from clothing to supplies. A small number, however, are simply picking up the phone and ordering the one academic tool that could be a real benefit to their learners: a faster internet connection.
Pottsgrove’s Virtual Academy, the district-owned cyber charter school, is about to launch into its second year of operation for children in grades 6-12. Although higher-speed internet service isn’t a requirement to attend school in cyberspace, it can make academic life online a little easier.
Better still, because the fast connection is being used primarily for educational purposes, a portion of the service cost is reimbursable.
As district Director of Technology Michael Wagman notes, academic life online also is brimming with choices. Pottsgrove’s 29-page catalog for 2012-2013 offers roughly 90 courses available through the academy in the arts and humanities, English, health and physical education, mathematics, science, social studies, and world languages (Mandarin Chinese and Spanish).
Courses are supported by teachers, who are available via online chat, e-mail, or phone from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays. In addition, virtual students have access to all of Pottsgrove’s facilities, clubs and organizations, and sports. If they choose, virtual academy students can even attend some classes at a school building, allowing them to stay close to their friends and peers.
Only a handful of students participated in the virtual academy program during its inaugural year, and that seems unlikely to change in its second. “We still anticipate relatively small numbers this year for the full-time virtual option,” Wagman concedes, but says the experience “was very typical” for such a launch. And, he adds, “we learned a lot last year.”
The Board of School Directors never expected the virtual academy would be a huge draw. When it partnered in June 2011 with the Chester County Intermediate Unit to open a Pottsgrove-branded online school, the move was considered a defensive act. The district at the time was paying about $1 million a year in tuition for students to attend cyber charter schools elsewhere, and it hoped to recoup some of the lost money.
It has been quietly marketing the program, however. Pottsgrove held an informational meeting for prospective families in May. In June, it trained guidance counselors to “be better able to assist families in making a decision whether or not to register” for virtual education, Wagman says. It plans to conduct orientation for registered students next month.
Parents and students interested in exploring what the virtual academy provides can call the registrar, 610-327-2277 Ext. 1040, for more information.
Superintendent Dr. Bradley Landis has told the school board that the ability to combine virtual and classroom courses – what he describes as a “blended” learning experience – may ultimately be the virtual academy’s biggest selling point.
Pottsgrove is actively “working towards providing various blended learning options to our brick and mortar school students,” Wagman agrees. “In a couple of years, we believe that full-time virtual education … will simply be one option along a continuum offered through the school district.”