As technology advances, society changes and the education process is no different. Before, the typical routine for a student was to wake-up early, get dressed and then go off to school, but with the click of a mouse, students can get their full education from the comforts of their own home-it’s called Cyber Charter School or online schooling. Students from kindergarten to college are now completing their education online.
According to Timothy Eller, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, of the 1,781,206 students enrolled in public schools, 27,779 students are enrolled in Cyber Charter Schools. There are currently approximately 13 Cyber Charter Schools in Pennsylvania and more and more are popping up every year.
Cyber Charter Schools are public charter schools, funded by the local school districts of the students who attend them. So when a child attends a Cyber School, the school district in which they reside pays the Cyber School for the student. The only requirement for most is that you must be a Pennsylvania resident.
Eller said Cyber Schools give students the opportunity of getting an education around their schedule and for parents it gives them options in their child’s education and an opportunity to be engaged in the educational process.
Nick Trombetta, CEO of PA Cyber Charter School, formerly known as Western PA Cyber School, in Beaver County, said there are many reasons why parents and students are choosing Cyber School, but “most are unhappy with traditional schools and most students felt they or their school failed to have their needs met.” PA Cyber is one of the largest Cyber Schools in the state. They have an enrollment of 11,000 students, but only 5 percent are African-Americans.
Although Cyber Charter Schools are not as traditional as attending a school in a regular building, they are held to the same standards as most other schools. The curriculum is reviewed, approved and monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“They (Cyber Charter Schools) are required by state law to follow the curriculum standards of Pennsylvania law,” Eller said.
Like most schools, Cyber Charter Schools are still required to take the same standardized tests, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
Some may wonder how Cyber Charter Schools work. Well, students begin by logging onto the computer for virtual classroom lessons, which are taught by real teachers who have to be certified the same as public schools, with the same standard given by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to teachers who meet specific requirements. They can interact and ask questions; and are given assignments to complete, just like in a real classroom setting, only from the comforts of their own home.
When it comes to the education process of students at a Cyber School, Sarah McCluan, communication service supervisor for Allegheny Intermediate Unit which runs PA Learners Online (PALO) Regional Charter School based in Pittsburgh, said that Cyber School students have the same responsibility as if attending a traditional school. They must log in at a certain time each day, students are expected to attend and participate, and homework and test exams are still required, just like at a traditional school.
As far as college readiness, Cyber School students match up fairly similar to traditional students, if not more. Representatives from Commonwealth Connections Academy Cyber Charter School, which is based in Cumberland County but has teaching centers all over the state, including Pittsburgh, said they present students with a weekly presentation of LiveLesson, which addresses college and career development, career fireside chats and academic development with college representatives and career development specialists. Along with that they also have students fill out a personalized learning plan that tells of post graduation plans, send weekly updates of college open houses, college fairs, SAT/ACT preparation and testing information, financial aid, scholarships and more.
McCluan, whose school has an enrollment of 394 students with approximately 20 percent of them African-Americans, said her school, like Commonwealth Connections and traditional schools, also offers students counselors to work with in regards to college entrance, but also gives students the opportunity to work with Blackboard, which is an online learning management site that most Cyber Charter Schools, colleges and universities use for grading, assignments and more. With Cyber Schools using this system, students are being introduced to it earlier than their traditional schooled counterparts.
Thecla Craddock, a current college student and Cyber Charter School graduate said, “I feel like I was more prepared for college than some other students. I had already been introduced to the online systems, like Blackboard, that we use in college. Attending Cyber School helped me to be more independent in my studies and proactive with my instructors. Another plus was that I felt empowered to take control of my education.”
Craddock, who attended Cyber School from grades 10-12, said she chose Cyber Schooling because she did not enjoy her first year of school and felt lost in the crowd, plus she was also having family issues that kept her preoccupied.
When it comes to Cyber School students McCluan said, “Ideal students need to be self motivated and take responsibility for their education and they have to have a solid structure at home because they have (to be disciplined) to log on.” She stressed that support at home is very important. In the past, she said PALO has worked with students who had illnesses, may have needed to work, or who were artists who frequently traveled. She said Cyber Schooling offered that flexibility that they needed.
While Cyber Schools do seem to match up academically, there are few concerns that the social component does not. Attending school online, takes away the social interaction that traditional schools offer, and many times that some students need.
“I guess I missed out on extra curricular activities,” said Craddock when asked about what she missed by not attending a traditional school.
Although Cyber Schooling does not allow students the same peer interaction that they may receive at a traditional school, some Cyber Schools are changing that. Commonwealth Connections, who has an enrollment of 5,853 students with 15 percent being African-Americans, not only offers students the same top quality education, but also offers its students the opportunity to participate in school clubs and activities. According to their website they offer more than 15 clubs and activities, everything from debate, math, science, art and chess clubs to student literary magazine and student leadership.
While Cyber Schools are becoming increasingly popular, there are still concerns that the accreditation of Cyber Schools may not be recognized the same as traditional ones by colleges, but Eller assures that they are because they all follow the same standards in curriculum.