Imagine an opportunity for you to meet the needs of your school district’s families who desire a cyberschool learning environment without sending the family — and school funding — out the door and to a third party.
This was Central York School District’s vision in 2010, when we realized that more of our students than ever were enrolling in full-time cyberschools.
According to the National Education Policy Center, enrollment in full-time cyberschools across the U.S. has more than tripled from 2007 to 2012. Unfortunately, when students enroll in cyberschools (also known as virtual schools), they take funding with them. As a result, cyberschools have become a financial drain on some school districts across the country, sometimes resulting in staffing cuts and reductions in student programs.
We saw that same trend play out in our school district in York County, Pa., and ultimately we faced an important decision — would we keep watching students and funding drain out of our schools, or would we do something about it?
New challenges call for new solutions
In 2010, Rick Burd, former assistant to the superintendent for administration, approached me with the idea of starting our own cyberschool. He had a vision for a cyberschool that would live within the Central York School District, offering families the flexibility and personalization that cyberschools afford.
Central York Cyber Academy opened its “doors” in 2011, and has grown steadily since then, attracting back many students who had left the district — and drawing many new students as well. Enrollment has grown from around 215 students in our first year to more than 375 in the 2014-15 school year. Of those, approximately 65 are full-time students.
Those full-time students represent more than $1 million in funding that we would have lost to outside schools.
In addition to the financial impact of the program, we’ve realized many other benefits as well. Students who attend our cyberschool are held to the same learning standards as students in our traditional classrooms. This is especially important now, as cyberschools are coming under increasing scrutiny for the quality and quantity of their instruction. Our cyberschool students also graduate with a Central York High School degree and can participate in many of the school-sponsored functions we offer all students, which enables them to be part of our Panther community.
We’re also able to provide students with more flexibility. Students who are interested in cyberschool can try a class or two before making the decision to attend full-time. Or they can choose a permanent blend of online and in-person classes. Cyberschool students can also participate in extracurricular activities at nearby brick-and-mortar schools, so attending school online doesn’t have to mean sacrificing the other experiences traditional school provides.
Tips for cyber success
If your school district is considering starting its own cyberschool, here are a few recommendations that helped contribute to our success:
- Identify a champion. Rick Burd, assistant to the superintendent for administration, spearheaded Central York’s Cyber program from 2011-2014. Rick worked directly with our families interested in this option to ensure the program was tailored to meet their needs. He also took time to ensure that families understand the responsibility of supporting a student in cyberschool and formed partnerships to help support them throughout the year.
- Choose the right partner. There are multiple companies who can help with creating your cyberschool’s infrastructure and curriculum, so you don’t have to start from scratch. But be sure to talk with other schools who have worked with your prospective partner to make sure they’re satisfied, and ask about their performance on key metrics such as graduation rates, attendance and performance on standardized assessments.
- Establish cyberschool family advisers. Train school counselors or other in-school staff members who can counsel parents and students on the pros and cons of cyber school, and help them decide if it’s the right choice for them.
- Stay involved. Once students begin online courses, teachers should continue to monitor their performance on an ongoing basis. Cyberschool isn’t the right fit for every student, you should be prepared to intervene if a student is struggling.
I know many schools are facing the same situation we were in five years ago and are unsure how to take back control. The good news is that, like Central York, you can take this challenging situation and turn it into a positive. If your school district is seeing attrition to cyberschools – or if you are simply interested in offering students and families additional learning options – starting a cyberschool can be a great solution that both empowers students and families, and keeps your district and schools strong.
Michael Snell is the superintendent of Central York School District in York, Pa. He previously served as the district’s assistant superintendent. In addition, Snell served as assistant superintendent of West York Area School District from 2003 through 2007. Central York School District used Odysseyware Academy in their cyberschool design and now use Odysseyware curriculum.
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