At an open house in a West Chester middle school library last week, a string quartet of high schoolers played classical music. Culinary students tended to a table arrayed with edible cookie dough and other treats, while district teachers and administrators greeted arriving parents.

The goal wasn’t to attract families to the West Chester Area School District’s traditional schools, but to a new cyber program led by its teachers. The selling points? A diploma from one of the district’s well-rated high schools and access to all of its offerings — like its 1,600-student orchestra program — with the flexibility of go-at-your-own-pace schooling.

“You’re getting everything we have to offer here in West Chester,” Kristen Barnello, the district’s supervisor of fine arts and social studies, told parents — a number of whom had children enrolled in cyber charter schools.

As Pennsylvania’s sizable cyber charter sector continues to draw students and funding from school districts — despite posting poor academic results — West Chester’s attempt stands as the latest effort by a district to beat back the competition by offering its own online program.

There are little statewide data on how such district programs are measuring up academically, although districts that have launched them say the initiatives have been successful. And a state legislative effort is backing their expansion. Lawmakers heard testimony on a bill Tuesday that would require every district in the state to offer full-time cyber education.

“Cyber education is an important choice parents should be able to make,” but “local accountability to our taxpayers and students is imperative,” said State Rep. Curt Sonney (R., Erie), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Education Committee. Other Republicans on the committee questioned the purpose of the bill, which would require districts to offer three full-time cyber options and dissolve cyber charters as independent schools. Cyber charters oppose the legislation.

Nearly 80% of Pennsylvania districts already offer some form of cyber education, according to the state Department of Education. Many contract with the state’s Intermediate Units — regional entities that provide educational services. The units hire outside vendors for curriculum, and in some cases teachers, all of whom are certified in Pennsylvania, according to officials.

Students in those programs still earn diplomas from their home districts. But like West Chester, some districts are creating courses themselves rather than going through vendors.

“We decided if we [contracted with vendors], we wouldn’t be able to have a better mousetrap. It wouldn’t be authentically our own,” said Garnet Valley Superintendent Marc Bertrando. Since launching its “eSchool” four years ago, the district has drawn students back from cyber charters, recouping about $400,000 annually, Bertrando said. About 75 students take at least one cyber course.

In the Phoenixville Area School District, which for years has offered full-time cyber education through the Chester County Intermediate Unit’s Brandywine Virtual Academy, teachers are now preparing to launch eight courses.

“To be frank, we’re competing with cyber charter schools,” said Assistant Superintendent Le Roy Whitehead.

Authorized by the state Education Department, cyber charters have long been a source of frustration for school districts, which must pay the charters for every enrolled student based on what each district spends per pupil, a sum that varies. Cyber charters are paid at the same rate as brick-and-mortar charters.

District officials say their virtual programs are cheaper than what they pay cyber charters. According to a 2018 survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, most districts spent less than $5,000 per student in their cyber programs, compared with more than $11,000 on average for students enrolled in cyber charters.

Cyber charter leaders have disputed that comparison, questioning the districts’ calculations and arguing their programs are more comprehensive than what some districts offer.

They also contend that parents have left school districts not solely to pursue cyber education, but because of other issues, including mistrust of the districts.

Parents should have the right to choose a cyber charter, rather than “only entrées from a menu in a particular restaurant called the school district,” Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, said Tuesday.

But district leaders believe they can win parents back. In West Chester last week, some parents seemed favorable toward the new program, scheduled to launch this fall with the sixth and ninth grades. Among them was a mother whose daughter “wants to experience high school,” but currently attends a cyber charter so she can fit schoolwork around her competitive figure skating schedule. “This is such a great school district,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Amberlee Haggerty, seventh grade English teacher, talks to a student during class at Peirce Middle School in the West Chester Area School District. She is among the teachers helping launch a new cyber program next year.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Amberlee Haggerty, seventh grade English teacher, talks to a student during class at Peirce Middle School in the West Chester Area School District. She is among the teachers helping launch a new cyber program next year.

Another mother, whose son attends Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School through a program conducted partly online and partly on-site, said she didn’t think she would ever enroll him in a completely online program, but wanted to see what West Chester was offering.

District leaders emphasized the connection they plan between the physical school and its online students — from allowing students to take music classes and other electives offered at school to providing one-on-one tutoring through a “cyber cafe” housed in the Fugett Middle School library.

The district’s teachers — who are creating and teaching the courses — will also be available for calls with students, who will be given two to four weeks of coursework at once to complete on their schedule.

“If I’m signing my name on the diploma, I don’t want a teacher in Pittsburgh or Erie,” said Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

Teachers told parents they were enthusiastic about designing online courses. “I’m looking at what skills are going to help them the next few years and beyond,” said Edward Pierce, who will be teaching ninth grade English language arts. “This allows for a lot of creativity.”

The district’s pitch didn’t appear to convince Virginia Burton, who has children attending cyber charters. While Burton was interested in West Chester’s new program, she didn’t view it as necessarily superior to charter options.

“It’s going to take a while to get something like that to that point,” she said.