Schools line up for virtual classrooms

Area schools are attempting to provide more educational options and recapture some of the students – and money – they’ve lost to online community schools in recent years by offering their own virtual classrooms.

All six traditional public school districts in Washington County have purchased “seats” in the A+ program through the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center at a discounted rate that averages about $500 a seat, according to ESC Superintendent Chris Keylor. Students can engage in credit recovery to make up for classes they missed or didn’t pass, and in some districts, attend school partially or completely online while remaining a student of the district.

That keeps the $5,745-per-pupil funding amount that follows a student who enrolls in an online school in the district coffers, but local superintendents said that isn’t the only motivation for the move.

“The A+ lets us get to those kids who don’t do traditional school very well, and it lets us provide them another avenue,” said Tony Dunn, superintendent of Belpre City Schools. “It also lets kids participate in the other things public schools provide,” like sports and various extracurricular activities.

Belpre has 50 A+ seats for what it calls its Eagle Academy. About 20 students are enrolled, some taking online courses at the school and some taking them from home, Dunn said.

Warren Local Schools is preparing to follow suit with its eAcademy, consisting of 80 A+ seats, after the board of education last month approved assigning the duties of director of that venture to athletic director Debbie Proctor.

Seventy-eight children in the Warren Local district are enrolled in online schools like the Ohio Virtual Academy and the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow.

“Then why not provide that same service, plus more?” Warren Superintendent Kyle Newton said. “Then we can recover that excess cost and provide what I believe is a better education.”

Funding

In the 2012-13 school year, more than $1.76 million was deducted from state funding earmarked for Washington County’s six public school districts. That number is projected to be about $55,000 less for the current school year, but since the expenses are prorated based on how long a student is enrolled in the online school, the final amounts won’t be known until the end of the year.

Some changes include Warren seeing a projected decrease of more than $100,000 in deductions, which could be related to students returning after the reinstatement of high school busing, but Newton said there’s no way to know how much of a role that played. And Wolf Creek saw less than $19,000 deducted last year, but is projected to have more than $49,000 taken out this year even though Superintendent Bob Caldwell said there are only two or three students in the district enrolled in online courses. The district was projected to have a similar amount deducted last year, but wound up getting reimbursed when the final numbers were tallied.

The deductions are controversial to some public school officials, who see community schools as less regulated and requiring less overhead than traditional schools. Proponents note that the community schools are graded on the same report card as public ones, but critics pointed to a higher number of poor ratings among community schools under the previous grading system.

Dunn said even though the money for community schools is deducted from the state share of instruction, it doesn’t cover the full $5,745 per student.

“Given our level of state support, we only get about 47 or 48 percent from the state,” he said. “Our local support is about $3,000 a kid. The state deducts the entire $5,745.

“People don’t understand that – that their locally voted taxes are going to another school,” Dunn said.

Eric Bode, executive director for school finance with the Ohio Department of Education, said the $5,745 figure is mandated by state law and community schools do not have the same local tax base as public schools.

“Generally, traditional districts spend more money per kid than community schools, and it’s because they have various funding sources,” Bode said.

They also have physical buildings and transportation costs, Dunn noted.

Beverly resident Ashley Chipps has three children enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy and said the way the money flows makes sense to her.

“I honestly believe the funds should follow the students,” said Chipps, 33. “They use those funds to help; if my son is struggling, they’re paying for … tutoring.”

A new public option

As online schools have become an increasingly popular option, public schools have looked at ways to not only hold onto the revenue but provide students with the benefits of an online education.

“Some students, that brick-and-mortar setting doesn’t necessarily meet their needs,” said Fort Frye Local Superintendent Stephanie Starcher. “(Students and families) vote for what they want with their feet.”

Fort Frye has 25 A+ seats, which means that no more than 25 students from the district can be online at one time, not that only 25 can participate. They’re primarily used for credit recovery, but they could also be used by students who for one reason or another can’t physically come to school or are struggling in a traditional classroom, Starcher said.

Marietta High School is using a different system for credit recovery but will switch to A+ next semester. Ruth Kunze, Marietta City Schools director of curriculum and technology, said the district recently submitted an application for an approximately $500,000 grant through Ohio’s new Straight A Fund to renovate space at the district offices to form the Tiger Academy, which would have blended online and traditional instruction for students who were falling behind or in need of more challenging courses.

It did not make the cut for the initial $100 million in funding, but Kunze said the district plans to resubmit the application for the next round and may pursue similar options even if they don’t win a grant.

Wolf Creek Local Schools has just five A+ seats and so far, no one has expressed an interest in them, Superintendent Bob Caldwell said.

“We thought it was worth a try,” he said. “I believe that a … diploma from one of the public schools in the county would be much more significant than one from” an online entity, since prospective employers might not be familiar with them.

Warren plans to start marketing its eAcademy soon to students who have taken the online route, Newton said.

“You would still graduate from Warren,” he said. “You’re still a part of our school. … You could have the best of both worlds.”

While online classes are beneficial to some students, Starcher said there are still other advantages, beyond the directly academic, to being part of a public school.

“There’s the whole other host of skills when you come in and interact with other students,” she said, citing anti-drug messages, socialization and other character-building areas.

Chipps said she was not aware that local schools were offering online courses, and it’s something she might have considered at one point.

“But we’re so comfortable with what we’re doing now … and the teachers we communicate with, we just know each other so well,” she said.

And while her children – in fifth, sixth and ninth grades – do sometimes miss lunch and recess with other students, they aren’t without opportunities for socialization. Among those is a regular Friday meet-up with other online-school families.

“We’re very involved in 4-H, so the kids, they’re always with other kids,” Chipps said.