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Districts have options to compete with charter schools

By Brian Reed

Point Park News Service

At Gateway School District, an online education program has been started in an attempt to prevent students from migrating to cyber charter schools.

As of this year, North Hills School District has about 30 students enrolled in its “Online Academy @ North Hills” in-house cyber program.

Seneca Valley School District has instituted a similar in-house cyber services program to its “Seneca Valley Academy of Choice” in order to curb the financial drain from students leaving for online charter schools.

These are recent examples of how districts are trying to combat the financial drain resulting from students choosing to attend cyber charters—for which the districts pick up the tab. However at least one local district takes issue with the fact that state policy does not allow them to compete with cyber charter schools on a level playing field.

In addition to an in-house cyber program, Seneca Valley has also created a program that extends beyond its own district in efforts to compete with cyber charter schools across multiple districts.  Its Outreach of Partnership in Technology (OPT) is a district-owned cyber program that partners with other districts to provide cyber education options for their students.

According to Seneca Valley School Board Vice President Eric DiTullio, his district has taken measures to compete with cyber charter schools through their in-house cyber and OPT programs, but he is frustrated by the loopholes his district must jump through to be competitive.

“I have no issue competing with a for-profit, private organization but we need to be playing by the same rules,” DiTullio said. “I’m not against [charter schools] necessarily. Parents and students should have to ability to get out and not be stuck in a bad school, but right now it’s coming at the cost of a negative effect on other, good districts.”

DiTullio said that students are able to leave Seneca Valley schools in order to attend a cyber charter school without any case-by-case approval from the Seneca Valley district; however, if a student from an outside district decided to leave their school and attend Seneca Valley’s OPT program, the change would require official approval from the district that the student was leaving.

“We are investing in our program and trying to be competitive, but we’re not being allowed to compete on a level playing field,” DiTullio said.

The districts that partner with Seneca Valley through their OPT program pay the Seneca Valley district for the services; this provides revenue to Seneca Valley and creates an alternative, non-charter cyber option for the partnering district’s students.

Seneca Valley’s OPT program currently has more than 1,000 students enrolled across 13 school districts.

Despite the fact that North Hills will pay out approximately $1.2 million for 73 students’ charter school tuition this year, spokeswoman Amanda Hartle said she believes that the success of its in-house cyber program gives the district reason to be optimistic about the numbers.

“This is the first year since 2004-2005 that the number of students attending charter schools has dropped in our district,” she said. “We think it has a lot to do with our ‘Choose North Hills’ initiative.”

In addition to being the first district in the region to offer its own online educational option, the North Hills School District is widely considered to have one of the most advanced district-created cyber programs in the state.

“Our [cyber] students can still play sports, they can still participate in our musical programs, they can still attend prom, and they’ll still get a North Hills diploma,” Hartle said. “We know what our kids need, and we are focused on creating a robust curriculum to meet those needs.”

Often parents and students choose cyber programs because of unique scheduling challenges due to other activities—such as sports—or individualized program needs—like accelerated learning.

Hartle said students are able to combine online courses with traditional classroom learning to meet their own specialized needs.

“A lot of people believe this approach to be the future of education,” she said.

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