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As School Options Expand, Families Find Ways To Personalize Student Learning

Eleven-year-old gymnast Danielle Norris is practicing a roundoff back tuck dismount for her balance beam routine. She has a meet coming up soon, and later this month she's competing in the state championship. Danielle’s mom, Karen Norris, says she practices about 22 hours a week.

“When Danielle was first invited to join the team and they told us the amount of hours that were involved, we were a little taken aback by that,” Norris said. “That was fourth grade.”

Danielle said that made for some very long days.

“I would get up at 7, get ready for school, go to school, it ended at like 3. And then start gym at 4, end at 9, go home and do homework, which is a lot,” she said.

For the last two years, Danielle has gone to school through the Online Academy at North Hills. Three days a week, she has gymnastics practice in the morning and afternoon, and does her cyber school during the midday.

“Then two days a week, Danielle comes into work with me and has a little desk in my office and does her work with me in my office,” Norris said.

Taking an active role in her daughter’s education is important to Karen Norris, who teaches and does research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

“My husband and Danielle are interested in history. We’re also interested in art. We can skip out and go to the museums; I work in Oakland so we can do that,” Norris said. “As long as she keeps at a pace that is either on track or a little bit ahead with all of her classes, there are a lot of different things that we can do on the side.”

In fact, Danielle’s whole family is invested in her education. Right now, she’s exploring the origins of the universe with her dad, and her 23-year-old brother has even created a music and social justice course for her.

Karen said they would have homeschooled Danielle if they could have, but that it just wasn’t realistic for them.

But their hybrid approach of online education and family projects is indicative of a shift in the way Americans are thinking about education.

“The line between homeschooling and schools used to be black and wide,” said John Edelson, president of Time4Learning and Time4Writing. “Once you joined a homeschooling movement you were outside of the school system, and that’s really over."

His company sells online educational materials, mostly to homeschooling parents. He said the company has doubled every four years since he founded it 10 years ago.

“School choice has been a big growth area over the last 10 years,” Edelson said. “Traditionally school choice meant your local school or a private or public school. More recently the mix has broadened with charter schools, virtual schools."

While home schooling numbers have stayed relatively steady, cyber charter school enrollment has skyrocketed over the last fifteen years.

In 2000, fewer than 600 Pennsylvania kids attended cyber school. Last school year, it was more than 36,000. And that’s just cyber-charter schools, because the state doesn’t yet keep records of how many students attend district-run cyber schools.

Jeff Taylor is an assistant superintendent at North Hills School District, and runs the Online Academy. He employs a hockey analogy to describe why the district began developing their cyber school back in 2006.

“As Wayne Gretsky says, you want to play where the puck is going, not where the puck is,” Taylor said.

The North Hills online curriculum is based on the brick-and-mortar curriculum, which Taylor said makes the district unique.

“In most schools what they do is they just buy it, outsource it,” Taylor said. “We decided we wanted to, as best we could, our students, our curriculum, our teachers.”

Taylor said families are free to combine brick-and-mortar classes, online academy courses and home schooling in any way that suits their needs. But not every district is quite there yet, so an ever increasing number of families are choosing cyber-charter schools.

Colleen Ellison lives in the Penn Hills School District and both of her kids, kindergartner Caroline and 3rd grader Nicholas, attend the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, or PALCS. Nicholas had previously attended a private school, but Ellison said that experience was disappointing.

“He wasn’t learning and growing, he was waiting to learn and grow,” Ellison said.

Now, he does his lessons at home, with a good amount of help from mom, but Ellison is quick to point out that this is not homeschooling. PALCS is responsible for providing the curricula that Nicholas and Caroline follow, and Ellison said the level of accountability is an improvement over what she’d previously experienced.

“When I was looking for cyber schools, I wanted to physically be able to walk in a door and say, 'Hey, my child doesn’t understand chapter 5, what do I do?'” Ellison said. “I didn’t want to be in somebody’s voicemail loop, I didn’t want to be in somebody’s email inbox that’s now on maternity leave. I wanted a real person, a real building, a real thing, that’s tangible.”

It’s ironic that Ellison would switch to an online school to find that sense of tangibility, but the PALCS offices in Harmar house about 30 staff members, on-site classrooms, and a spot for kids to work and hang out.

However, Michael Barbour, an education professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut said there is a dark side to school choice.

“The conversation has been around opening up markets and providing choice and this whole idea that good schools will attract students and bad schools will close because they won’t have any customers,” Barbour said.

He said that idea of having winners and losers works fine in the private sector, but in education, that makes students the losers. And right now, according to Barbour, a lot of students are losing.

“These programs are doing quite miserably,” Barbour said.

For the 2013-14 school year, not one cyber charter school was deemed academically acceptable by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Scores are based on standardized test scores, graduation rates, attendance and other factors. A minimum score of 70 meets state standards.

According to the National Education Policy Center’s 2015 report on online K12 learning, which Barbour co-authored, just 41 percent of programs nationwide were deemed academically acceptable by state standards. Barbour said part of the problem is that technology has far outpaced policy, and one of the biggest challenges facing states is figuring out how to remove the profit motive from the cyber-charter school arena.

While the schools themselves are publicly funded, non-profit entities, they often purchase their curricula from for-profit corporations.

“These corporations aren’t interested in what’s best for the students; they’re interested in what’s best for the shareholders,” Barbour said. “At the end of the day, those two goals are incongruent with each other, and the shareholders will always win out over the students, unfortunately.”

The Pennsylvania Department of education hasn’t approved any new cyber-charters in the last three years, often citing a lack of independence between the schools and companies such as K12 Inc., which provides online curricula to nearly 40 percent of all cyber students nationwide.

A bill currently in the Pennsylvania Senate would tie cyber school funding to actual costs. In his budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf estimated such a move would free up $160 million for public schools.

While lawmakers play catch-up, an increasing number of students are following online curricula, whether inside or outside of a full-time cyber program.

“The future is already here, it’s just lurking in the shadows,” said John Edelson of Time4Learning.

He pointed out that one-to-one computing has been the norm in many homeschooling circles for years, yet it’s still newsworthy when a public school gets iPads for all the kids. As technology improves, the gray areas between brick and mortar schools, cyber schools and home schooling will only get grayer, and the options available to parents, more expansive.