Cyber: More than an online classroom

There have been quite a few recent articles disparaging cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, and as CEO of one of PA’s 15 established cyber charter schools, Agora Cyber, I wanted to share my thoughts and some information. For many parents, having the option to choose a more accessible future for their children is an invaluable asset to ensuring their success — regardless of problems they would face in a traditional school. However, a handful of legislators view this type of alternative schooling as more of a loophole in the educational system than what it truly is — an absolute necessity for thousands of families in Pennsylvania whose needs can’t be met by their traditional public school. Cyber schools offer an alternative option for kids who just wouldn’t succeed in a brick and mortar school, whether due to medical issues, special education needs, bullying, or countless other issues that would worsen if it weren’t for cyber schools such as Agora.

A common misconception about alternative public schools, such as online cyber charters, is that they should be located/based within a student’s district. The incorrect reasoning behind this is that since the district pays the student’s tuition to attend a cyber charter school, it’s only fair that the money stays within the student’s home district. A proposed solution to this belief is to have online classes for every district that contains families seeking an alternative option, which would mean 500 cyber schools for all 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. However, this system would suffer an uneven distribution of resources and students, thinly spreading the scarce funding and specialized staffing.

The current need for online schooling in the state is being met by a school like Agora, which has cultivated resources and best-practices in an effort to fill the void left by the traditional public-school system. If the cyber charter system becomes ousted by the push for in-district online options, thousands of students would be ripped from their newfound educational alternative they so desperately need.

District-run cyber programs cannot function with the same level of quality that the 15 established cyber charter schools have achieved. Based on longevity alone, in-house district cyber programs — which right now are best described as “online classes” — cannot have what established cyber schools offer. Cyber schools function entirely differently for the purpose of giving students what they were denied at their traditional school. Creating 500 in-district cyber schools would result in a decentralized, impersonal, ill-equipped educational experience — the individualized nature that allows cyber charter students to thrive would be lost with in-district programs.

While not all cyber schools across this country are a successful alternative to traditional schooling, Agora has proven to be an outlier in navigating the complex issue of cyber schooling. During our almost 15 years, Agora has gained experienced and evolved, built our resources, created successful environments and nurtured a pool of assets like family coaches, counselors and social workers critical to the growth of our students on academic and personal levels.

Agora received only about 70 percent of what brick-and-mortar public schools consider their “cost per student.” It is unfounded to claim that cyber charters should get less because we have fewer expenses. We incur the same level of expenses, although the source of some expenses may be different. We have larger staffs and significantly more technology infrastructure than public schools. Another great example is the fact that Agora’s special education population is almost double that of traditional public schools. This brings significantly higher expenses that make it possible for those students to excel. From in-home physical therapy to speech to special technology and transportation, costs add up, but for us it is always about the student.

By driving the state’s 15 cyber charter schools out of existence, students would be forced back into a public-school system that already failed them. The idea of a cyber charter school inherently presents an alternative for families seeking a better schooling option — merely creating “online classes” for every district would dismiss the very purpose of providing an alternative, highly specialized educational experience.

Michael Conti is CEO of Agora Cyber Charter.


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