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Pottsgrove Virtual Academy A Growing Option, Slowly

POTTSTOWN PA – With a total enrollment of 23 students, the Pottsgrove School District’s cyber school – in which students learn primarily online – isn’t yet likely to be labeled a resounding success. Some of its much larger competitors serve thousands of students statewide.

Pottsgrove Virtual Academy A Growing Option, SlowlyThe Pottsgrove Virtual Academy, however, presents a cyber option that lets participants stay connected to local friends and teachers in Pottsgrove’s traditional bricks-and-mortar classrooms. It’s attractive for families interested in education alternatives, district Technology and Communications Director Michael Wagman said Wednesday (Feb. 19, 2014) in an e-mail.

The cyber school, which Pottsgrove launched in June 2011, has been a side topic of conversation as the Board of School Directors considers Wagman’s proposal to equip every student in the high and middle school buildings with a mobile computing device beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year. It surfaced again Tuesday night (Feb. 18, 2014) during the board’s Curriculum, Technology And Student Affairs Committee meeting.

Currently 15 full-time cyber students are registered as attending Pottsgrove High. They take their courses wholly online in programs supported by a consortium of area school districts and coordinated by the Chester County Intermediate Unit. Another four have opted for a “blended” education, which means they take a combination of courses both online and at the Kauffman Road high school.

Four more blended students are registered as attending Pottsgrove Middle School.

All cyber school students receive their own computers and are reimbursed for high-speed Internet access, according to the district. They can use their schools’ libraries and guidance services. They’re encouraged to participate in activities and sports. In short, they’re regular Pottsgrove students who, for some or all of their school hours, are simply learning somewhere else. They’ll graduate with a Pottsgrove diploma.

“Ideally,” Wagman noted, “we would want to entice cyber charter students (those who live within the district but are enrolled online elsewhere) back.” They are expensive burdens on Pottsgrove’s budget, Business Administrator David Nester has said; each costs between $12,000 and $25,000 annually. State law requires Pottsgrove to pay their tuitions.

Luring them back to the Falcon nest in any form has not been easy. “We have had limited success on that front,” Wagman admits. There’s still reason to be encouraged by Pottsgrove Virtual Academy’s progress, however. When the effort started three years ago, former Superintendent Dr. Bradley suggested it would be worthwhile if only 10 students enrolled; it has now more than doubled that number.

As a selling point, the district claims Pottsgrove students overall (including the academy component) outperform their cyber charter school peers – those taught by commercial competitors – on standardized tests in mathematics, reading, and science.

The one-to-one (one device for every student) initiative Wagman envisions at the high and middle schools, at a budgeted price of up to $413,000 next year alone and with additional costs in subsequent years, in part leverages what the district has already learned from its Virtual Academy experience. One-to-one computing would over time permit both “hybrid” and blended learning. In the hybrid form, online and classroom materials and exercises are included in the same course.

Pottsgrove already offers hybrid programs. “An example of this would be our new Carnegie Math curriculum,” Wagman said. “These students use computers from our existing laptop mobile labs on schedules worked out by teachers within the math department. I expect this trend to continue and expand.”

Hybrid teaching demands classroom discipline, Wagman reminded committee members Tuesday. Teachers must be willing to tell students to close their devices when appropriate and focus on what’s happening around them. “The last thing we want to see is kids burying their faces in a screen 24-7,” he said.

Hybrid teaching also involves a learning curve for both instructors and students, high school Principal Dr. Bill Ziegler added, before new devices and strategies are put to effective use in a broader range of courses. Wagman’s one-to-one plan addresses some of those training needs.

Related to area schools’ one-to-one technology:

Related to Pottsgrove’s cyber school:

Photo from Google Images

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