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Virtual shout-out for cyber schools

They're not for everyone. But they can be excellent for the right students.


Karen Rile

teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania

I get shocked faces whenever I reveal that two of my daughters graduated from a Pennsylvania cyber charter school. Maybe I seem as if I should be a better parent than to let my kids morph into lazy, pajama-clad, screen-addicted slobs sliding downhill toward a life of failure at taxpayer expense.

That's the problem with stereotypes - peek a little closer and they dissolve. To be honest, the prospect of Internet-based education was not intuitive to me at first, either. And if fate had given me different kids, or no kids, or enough cash to send my kids to private school when the going got tough, I'd probably be part of the shrill chorus decrying the use of public funds for cyber school.

As it turns out, I spent four years, from 2008 through 2012, observing a cyber high school in action. I watched my kids interact with their teachers. I kept an eye on their progress; I looked over the comments that teachers wrote on their papers. I leafed through their textbooks - the very same editions they'd used before they transferred from their public magnet high schools. My daughters' cyber teachers weren't robots. They were earnest, sincere, and, for the most part, personable. They knew my kids by name, and they knew them pretty well. Every time I had a concern, my call or e-mail was returned within a few hours.

The cyber school couldn't offer as much variety or as many APs as the brick-and-mortar schools. There was no Shakespeare Club, no film studio or track team. Sometimes it was lonely. It wasn't a Germantown Friends or a Shipley School kind of education. It wasn't a Masterman education. But it was a good enough education.

Literature and social studies classes were straightforward. It's really not difficult to present text-based material and to respond to essays online. Science labs were mostly nifty virtual reenactments. Not as exciting as a fizzy hands-on experience, but high school chemistry is high school chemistry. My youngest daughter actually enjoyed learning math on her own, and rarely sought her teachers' help. Her older sister opted out of calculus senior year and took consumer math. I peeked over her shoulder as she learned about interest rates and amortization schedules. I could have used a class like that 30 years ago.

My daughters didn't leave Masterman and Central on a whim. One is a violinist, the other an actor. Although they were doing well academically, they were struggling to schedule rehearsals, performances, and travel. Life was tense. There was never enough time to practice. The cyber charter school relieved tremendous pressure and allowed them to focus on their goals, to explore new creative projects, and to breathe.

Thanks to asynchronous scheduling, my violinist daughter, now a junior at Juilliard, had the flexibility to study with top teachers in her field. When my youngest daughter, an actor since childhood, started cyber school, she was freed up to explore other aspects of theater arts. Her award-winning plays have since been produced by professional directors. At 17, she directed and produced her own sold-out Philly Fringe production. She became a founding member in a professional aerial theater company, and, as part of a Young Scholars program, earned A's in screenwriting and playwriting classes at Penn. She is currently studying acting and playwriting at Fordham University. If she'd stayed at Central, she probably would have done OK, too. But she would not have started writing and directing plays. She would not be the person she is today.

Cyber school isn't the answer for everyone. In fact, I discourage most parents who call me for advice. To succeed in an asynchronous learning environment, a kid needs either a firm support system at home or a strong internal drive. If your child is struggling in school and needs to feel that you are on her side, you would be wise not to turn yourself into an in-house schoolwork-enforcer. My youngest daughter once had the dubious distinction of being on both the high honor roll and the truancy warning list at her school. She was spending too much time writing and reading plays, and not enough on her statistics homework. In the end, she came through with flying colors, and has learned how to organize her time.

My kids met most of their classmates for the first and last time at graduation. It was a strange and moving festivity, unlike any graduation I've attended. Families had traveled from all over the state: There were kids in Mennonite garb, kids with small children of their own. There was a 16-year-old girl heading off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ballet dancers, equestrians, gymnasts, and ice-skaters. There were kids entering the military, community colleges, beauty schools, and mortuary schools. There were former dropouts who had overcome addiction and depression, and who had never thought they would see this day.

Opponents of cyber schooling like to point out that no Pennsylvania Cyber Charter made AYP ("adequate yearly progress," as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act) in 2012. My daughters' school did make AYP in seven out of the last eight years. Their high school's AYP distinction was withdrawn last year retroactively after the U.S. Department of Education changed its calculation methods for charter schools, under pressure from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

In either case, to dismiss these schools solely on the basis of test scores is to ignore the populations they serve. It's no coincidence that so many self-directed preprofessional kids are drawn to Internet education. But most of the students my daughters encountered in their cyber school were there for other reasons. For many of them, yes, cyber schooling was a last-gasp stop on a difficult journey. Do those kids not deserve this chance?

It costs the Philadelphia School District about $10,000 for each student who attends a Pennsylvania cyber charter school. Currently, the district plans to launch its own online school this fall. The per-kid cost will drop to $5,700. Will kids flock to Philadelphia Virtual Academy, abandoning their bricks-and-mortar schools in droves? Of course not. Few kids would swap the fun and drama of high school for a spot in front of a computer. And fewer parents want the responsibility of overseeing school-at-home. But for the small minority of kids who benefit immensely from this opportunity, a public cyber school makes sense.