Cyberschool opens a new world for local families
By Jennifer Autry
Cyberschool sounded like a zany education trend when it burst onto the national radar almost a decade ago. But with 39 states, including Pennsylvania, now embracing online education, it seems like cyberschools are on track to totally transform education in the U.S.
Twelve cyberschools currently serve Pennsylvania’s students, enrolling 24,603 students for the 2009-10 school year. Considering that cyberschools saw an 11 percent enrollment growth that year over the prior year, it’s safe to say more and more families in the Commonwealth are trusting cyberschools to meet the needs of their children.These online schools use the public school curriculum but allow students to learn from home, forgoing the brick-and-mortar setting of the classroom for an atmosphere that thousands of families and students are finding to be flexible and freeing.
Three local families shared their stories about how cyberschool has completely transformed the lives of their children, allowing these students to take the reins of their education and discover a whole new world outside the traditional classroom.
Mike and Lisa Folmer of Lebanon have always encouraged their daughter’s artistic and creative side. Maddisyn, 13, loves painting and drawing and, most of all, daydreaming.“She is very artsy and she spends a lot of time daydreaming,” Lisa Folmer said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but with her in a public school her grades declined and it seemed like it was harder and harder for the teachers to stay on top of her.”
So the Folmers decided to pull Maddisyn out of Lebanon City School District and start her sixth-grade year through Commonwealth Connections Academy, a Pennsylvania cyberschool that serves Central Pennsylvania students through its Harrisburg office. It was a perfect fit for the Folmers. “At home I can stay on top of her and make sure she gets her work done,” Lisa Folmer said. “I know everything that’s going on at every moment and I think she’s definitely learned a lot, not only about the school subjects, but also about how she learns.”
Aside from helping Maddisyn stay on task with her school work, cyberschooling has generated other positive changes and developments the Folmers can visibly see. “She definitely has greatly improved her study skills and the way she accepts information,” Lisa Folmer said. “And she knows now that this is her problem. In school she wasn’t associating that her problem was that she couldn’t concentrate. She’s not ADD. She’s just very free.”
A typical cyberschool day at the Folmer household begins when Lisa and Maddisyn take younger siblings Nathan, 10, Dominic, 6, and Natalie, 4, to school. Then with the house quiet and empty, Maddisyn concentrates on her schoolwork.
“She doesn’t do all the work at one time,” Lisa Folmer said. “Toward the end of last year she would study and do the things off the curriculum list she liked to do first. I told her to do the longest things first, and then the rest of the day we could have lunch together and go to the mall -- do things other kids wouldn’t be able to do because they were in school. Then she could spend a few more hours finishing up and I could check her work.”
While Maddisyn has excelled in cyberschool, Lisa doesn’t believe it’s a solution that can work for all families. “Families really need to consider how much time they have to devote to it each day,” Lisa Folmer said. “What kind of timeframe are they looking at? People get deluded by how much time they think they have. You have to have extra time and be willing to sacrifice something. If you just try to squeeze it in it’s just not going to work, unless your child is a very independent learner.”
Making the sacrifice and transitioning Maddisyn into cyberschool was definitely worth the effort for the Folmers, who are now reaping the benefits of this new form of education. “We definitely made the right decision to go with cyberschool. If your child is used to public school, they’re going to go through at least two to three months where they are up and down emotionally. But I think it’s well worth the effort in the end.”
Aaron Albright simply ran out of hours in the day when he was taking his 10th grade classes at Lower Dauphin School District. The 16-year-old is pursuing a professional motocross career, and traditional high school made it difficult for him to find the time to work on his motorcycles and train to compete. His parents, Bob and Roxann Albright of Hershey, decided to try cyberschool through the Capital Area Online Learning Association for the second semester of his 10th-grade year. They haven’t looked back since.
“When you’re at school all day long you run out of time to do other things,” Roxann Albright said. “In the school setting he was pretty good at school and things came quickly to him. He felt like he didn’t need to be sitting there in school and wasting time. So cyberschool benefited him quite a bit because he got to train more.”
Aaron runs the Mainline Series locally and also races in the Mason Dixon Riding Association. Cyberschool gives him much more time to work out and get physically fit to ride in motocross races, as well as work on bike engines with his father, who owns Bob Albright Motors. “The cyberschool schedule is a lot more flexible and it’s a lot less time-consuming,” Aaron said. “You can focus on your work and eliminate a lot of other distractions.”
Cyberschool also greatly benefited Aaron when he wrecked his bike during a motocross race this spring. He broke his wrist, collarbone and three ribs and cracked three vertebras in his back. “Since I was injured, I couldn’t really do anything else,” Aaron said. “So I worked ahead and got cyberschool done by the first week in May. After that I could get back into racing.”
Roxann knows that part of the reason cyberschool works so well for the Albrights is because Aaron is an independent learner who can work on his own. “He’s very schedule-structured and devoted to being the best he can be, so it worked really well for us,” she said. “He’s looking to take some extra courses this summer and he can also work ahead and get some credits for next school year.”
There are also advantages to going to school at home. Aaron loves his mom’s home cooking for lunchtime, as opposed to cafeteria food, while Roxann likes the fact that she knows her son is safe. “I feel safer that my child is at home,” Roxann Albright said. “Sometimes public school is just not the greatest environment to be in.”
Ultimately, Aaron enjoys that he can get his school work done quickly so that he can devote the rest of his day to his true passion: motocross. “My whole experience with cyberschool went great,” he said. “It was even more than I was hoping it would be. I get done so much faster so I can do more with motocross.”
Nate Keller never felt like he was challenged at Bloomsburg High School. Even as an honors student, the 16-year-old felt like there was too much “busy work,” and he found himself facing a lot of down time in classes because he finished his work faster than other students.
“We decided to give cyberschool a try,” said Lisa Keller, Nate’s mother. “He was only enrolled for a nine-week period at first. But he loved it and it was perfect for him.”
For the first time in his academic career, Nate could work at his own pace. In his classes through SusQ-Cyber Charter School, which serves all of Pennsylvania, he worked so far ahead in his biology and geometry classes that he didn’t have to take the final for either class. He had finally found a system that catered to his needs.
“Cyberschool is centered around the student, whereas with high school it’s very black and white,” Nate said. “You have to make an effort to get any special attention because that shakes up the system. At cyberschool, the teachers talk to you a lot. My homeroom teacher will call me every two weeks to see how I’m doing. They work my schedule around my strengths. The curriculum and the amount of courses you can take are so broad that it covers any of your interests.”
Cyberschool also gave Nate the freedom to better prepare for college. He took chemistry through Bloomsburg University last year and will take one class each semester of his junior year, meaning he’ll already have one semester of college credits. He worked so far ahead in cyberschool that he could have chosen to graduate from high school one year early.
“He’s always been a self-motivated person,” Lisa Keller said. “He doesn’t like somebody telling him what to do. Even though he was being told what to do in cyberschool, he could do it at his own pace and he felt like he was managing his own destiny.”
Cyberschool also gives Nate more flexibility to work as a produce assistant at Giant, where he works up to 25 hours per week during the school year. He also now has the freedom to travel on business trips with his father, Edward, a consultant. “I got to go to Los Angeles, Orlando, Philly and Virginia,” he said. “I just took my laptop and internet card the cyberschool provides. I set it up in the hotel room or car and then I would do school and still have that experience of traveling.”
While he does miss seeing his friends every day, he still see them often, and enjoys shocking them when they find out he finished his school work for the day in only a few hours. Ultimately, cyberschool has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for Nate. “I think cyberschool is a revolution,” he said. “This is going to be happening more often. I see physical school buildings falling out of popularity and I see cyberschools taking over. They just cater so well to the student.”
Jennifer Autry is a freelance writer living in Mechanicsburg. She is mom to two cats and one Basset Hound.
• Brick and mortar and cyber charter schools give Pennsylvania families the opportunity to choose an alternative to their public school districts and dedicate their tax dollars to the education of their children.
• There are currently about 25,000 students enrolled in the 12 public cyber charter schools across the state.
• In the virtual model, every student receives a full set of curriculum materials (textbooks and workbooks), as well as a computer and printer/fax machine for completing assignments and interacting with teachers and reimbursement for internet connection continuously throughout the school year.
• Public Cyber Charter Schools conform with Act 88 of 2002 (the Cyber Charter Law); all provisions of Act 22 of 1997 (the Charter School Law) not specifically addressed in Act 88 and the Public School Code for those regulations not directly spelled out in Act 88 or Act 22.
• As public schools, all charter schools must adhere to the provisions of the Federal No Child Left Behind law, including administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).
• All charter schools in the state of Pennsylvania operate on a five-year charter, must file annual reports with the PA Department of Education and are subject to annual audits by the PDE.
• Cyber charter schools operate with open enrollment standards, which means any Pennsylvania family can apply to attend and elect to educate their child in the one-on-one model that requires an adult to stay home as the academic coach.
• All charters (brick and mortar and cyber charters) must file detailed annual reports to PDE, and meet all NCLB mandates—academic progress, teacher certification, student participation, etc.—or risk losing that charter.
Source: Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, Norristown.