For six years, Alessandra Mullin excelled at Masterman, one of the top schools in the state. But when she heard about a new cyber venture of the Philadelphia School District, she was intrigued.
Mullin dances with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and switching to online education would allow her to pursue her dream of dancing full time, she reasoned.
The Philadelphia Virtual Academy wasn't an easy sell, though - her parents were loath to allow Mullin to surrender her seat in such a good school, especially in her last year of high school.
"Somehow, I convinced them," Mullin said recently during a pause from Nutcracker practice. "If dance is what you really want to do, you do it all the time. You do it 100 percent."
Mullin, 18, is now a senior at the district's online school, launched in September by officials who hope to compete with charters and cyber charters that have been drawing students from traditional public schools in big numbers. (The school has 300 students enrolled this year, most of whom came from charters and cybers.)
She's cramming her schoolwork (Advanced Placement microeconomics, AP statistics, AP government, British literature, and philosophy) into late nights and weekends - and thriving. Mullin is in line to be the cyber school's first valedictorian and was recently recognized by the School Reform Commission as a top student.
Mullin hopes to dance professionally after high school, and attend college, too, though she's not sure of the right timetable. But for now, she is thrilled that she's had more opportunities to dance - as a snowflake, hot chocolate, and marzipan in The Nutcracker, and in Jewels, which opened the Pennsylvania Ballet season this year.
Ballet "is a very competitive field," Mullin said. Prior to switching to cyber school, "I would get cut out of pieces and performances and competitions because I couldn't be there."
Her father, the former city finance and commerce director, Stephen Mullin, admits he was worried at the prospect of his daughter switching to a cyber school. Mullin teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, and education is paramount to him and his wife.
"It was a scary proposition," Stephen Mullin said. "Masterman is a great school. My hand was shaking when I signed her out of there."
Cyber schools are viewed with skepticism by critics who say their academics are lackluster, though Stephen Mullin said he ultimately gave his blessing to Alessandra's cyber education because it is overseen by the district. (Courses and staff are provided by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which operates online programs for a number of area districts and runs its own cyber school.)
And online education isn't for everyone. Mullin is the rare teenager who's self-motivated, a good planner, and cares enough about academics to prioritize them despite what is essentially a full-time job.
Philadelphia Virtual Academy is clearly working for her.
Backstage, you'll often find her and her peers, many of whom are enrolled in cyber charters, in costume, squeezing in schoolwork.
"I always have a book with me to read in the dressing room during my break," Mullin said.
Mullin spends time occasionally at one of the school's drop-in centers at district headquarters, 440 N. Broad St. And she keeps in frequent e-mail contact with Dave Anderson, the school's administrator.
Anderson, a district employee, said Mullin is an extraordinary student, but many of the school's 300 pupils in grades six through 12 have life circumstances that make traditional school a bad fit for their schedules. One student lives in a shelter and is working full time to earn enough to afford an apartment.
"He's a great student, and he does really well," Anderson said. "For some people, this is a new modality, and they're trying it out."
Anderson understands the skepticism concerning cyber schools but believes the problem with many is that they are set up by for-profit companies.
"I'm not a big believer in financially driven models of education. I believe in public education. And we're not saying, 'This is the greatest thing in the world, this is going to solve all your problems.' We're just being responsive to our students," he said.
When it established the cyber school, the School Reform Commission set aside up to $15 million to cover its bills for two years. It will cost about $2 million to run this year.
Officials estimate that roughly 270 of the school's students came from charter schools or cyber charters, or were planning on attending charters before they switched to Philadelphia Virtual Academy. They said that at the school's current enrollment, it saves the district about $275,000.