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Cyber charter administrator, parents tout benefits of choice

While it may take a village to raise a child, Jennifer Ferguson of Watsontown wants to pick that village.

Ferguson and her husband have enrolled their three children in Commonwealth Charter Academy, a cyber charter school in Harrisburg, with more than 120 students in Lycoming County and the region.

Foregoing public school to seek the option they say has provided a rigorous curriculum and enough fun and social activities to make the non-brick-and-mortar classroom experience worthwhile, the Fergusons are a growing trend of parents glad to have school choice.

“As more families look for high-quality public school options, enrollment in public cyber charter schools is expected to increase,” said Timothy Eller, senior vice president for Outreach at the Commonwealth Charter Academy.

The Fergusons enrolled their children — now ages 12, 10 and nine — in the academy as a measure of giving them a safe environment without burdens of peer pressure or bullies.

“While we believe while it takes a village to raise a child, we would like to pick our village,” Ferguson said.

Her children are just a stroke of a keyboard from connecting and interacting with caring and talented teachers.

More parents and students are gravitating toward these choices.

For example, as of the 2018-19 school year, 126 students from Lycoming County were enrolled, Eller said.

Cyber growth is occurring across the state, he said.

Today, 15 charter schools have enrolled 37,355 students statewide.

Several factors are credited with cyber schools increasing their enrollment, Eller said.

While most public school districts take a stance as a no-bullying zone, the cybers give parents an opportunity to stay at home, but also to take field trips and join clubs.

“My children are exposed to academic and social environments,” Ferguson said.

One mother in Lycoming County whose child has a compromised immune system said she selected cyber school as a medical option.

The cyber schools offer such opportunity and they don’t lack in academic rigor, Eller said.

Since charter schools are public schools, students who attend them are required to take the Pennsylvania State Student Assessment test and/or Keystone Exams, he said.

Due to the limitations and flaws of the state’s assessments, the charter academy also uses the i-Ready Diagnostic assessment to determine each students’ academic growth during the school year. Students there take the i-Ready assessment in the fall, winter and spring of each school year.

“What’s often overlooked is that nearly two-thirds of students who enroll at the charter academy for the first time are performing below grade level,” Eller said. “It takes a few years for the academy to bring these students up to grade level.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education uses the Future Ready PA Index to show academic performance for all public schools.

Many graduates of cyber charter schools, according to data provided by the academy, go on to two- or- four-year colleges, trade schools, vocational or military service.

In fact, out of the academy’s class of 2019, 49 percent plan to attend a two- or four-year college, 8 percent plan to attend a career technical school or vocational training program, 25 percent plan to enter the workforce, 3 percent plan to join the military, and 3 percent plan to pursue mission work, Eller said.

Forget about inclement weather, too. The charter school provides 180 days of instruction as public school districts. The 2019-20 school year begins on Sept. 4, and ends on June 10.

Pennsylvania’s Charter School Law requires charter schools to provide 180 days of instruction, or 900 hours per year of instruction at the elementary level or 990 hours per year of instruction at the secondary level.

Feedback is valuable to gauge what the cybers are doing right, Eller said.

Other than parents, students are able to send back responses about their experience.

“Each year, the academy invites students and parents to participate in a survey to provide feedback about the school and the programs and services it offers,” Eller said.

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