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Online education programs can keep students in ‘school,’ cut costs to district

BELLEFONTE — A student walks to a desk, sits down and fires up a laptop computer.

Waiting to log on, the student pulls out some reading materials, notebooks, a bottle of water, and settles in for a day of school.

For many K-12 students, a scene such as this is their academic reality.

It’s where learning occurs: In a virtual world.

Students who need a flexible learning environment outside of a traditional brick-and-mortar school building may find the Bellefonte eLearning Academy, or BeLA, can offer such an option.

Launched in 2009, the academy is modeled along the cyber charter school program with parallel district requirements for graduation. In 2017-2018, more than 50 students enrolled in BeLA.

The offerings have grown from serving primarily high school students in its early years to now serve 3rd to 12th grades, says BeLA Academy Cyber Education Coordinator Rebecca Leitzell.

“We have changed vendors, we have changed expectations and rules – many of those things include making it more of a blended experience and opportunity for students,” Leitzell told district Public Relations Director Brit Milazzo in a question-and-answer posted online. “So, if students like to participate in classes we do not offer online, then they can go into the school and take those classes.”

The academy differs from a typical cyber charter school in that students can participate in extracurricular activities the district offers, such as clubs, athletics, fine arts, fairs or attend field trips, speakers, and prom. Students also have the option to attend Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology, and upon graduation, students receive a Bellefonte Area diploma.

Offering BeLA and recruiting students to BeLA makes not only curricular sense, but budgetary sense as well, according to some.

The tuition category of 2018-19’s budget represented $2.3 million just to charter schools — an increase of approximately $300,000 from the 2017-18 budget, Ken Bean, Jr., director of fiscal affairs, told the district board of trustees in May.

“Charter school is advertised as free and it is ‘free’ to the student — but any of our students who go to a charter school, the district has to pay the tuition, i.e., that means the taxpayers pay the tuition,” Bean says in a podcast posted on the district’s website.

Enrollment data show the district’s highest charter student enrollment is at Young Scholars of Central PA, with 63 students.

Average district cost per regular student is $13,000, according to the 2018-19 budget.

For the 2017-18 school year, the tuition costs school districts in the Commonwealth paid for state cyber charter programs, such as Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, or PA Cyber, averaged $11,306, ranging from $7,598 to $18,544, according to a Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators report.

Approximately 172 districts responded to a survey in spring 2018.

Results show 88 percent, or 152 districts, offer local cyber school options, spending an average $5,000 or less annually per student for regular services and an average $7,000 or less for special education services per students.

In prior years, BASD paid nearly $13,000 per student for regular services to attend PA Cyber, according to budget data.

Centre County districts all have launched such cyber education programs, partly for budgetary reasons, but also to respond to a growing trend in education and support regional curricular needs.

Leitzell is a certified teacher as are all teachers working with Odysseyware Academy, BeLA’s state-verified vendor. While Odysseyware Academy’s teachers keep virtual “office hours,” students can come in for one-on-one help.

Enrolling involves meeting strict, state-testing requirements. But so does remaining in the program, including logging on for at least four hours per week.

“In order to stay in the program, they maintain (at least) 70 percent in all classes, meet weekly requirements for hours and make sure they’re staying on pace,” Leitzell said. “If we see any of those things falling apart, they get a warning, so I will give them one week. If they don’t get themselves back on pace, then they won’t be allowed to continue in the program.”

When introducing students to the cyber ed program, Leitzell says she advises students to spend at least one hour per class per day. For an 9th – 12th grader with seven classes, that averages 35 hours a week. Structure and motivation are key. But problems can still pop up.

“If I see a student is struggling, I’ll pull up their grade book and say, ‘hey, you got a 40 (percent) on this quiz. What can we do to get you the help you need to pull up the grade and understand the concepts that are required?'” she said in an online interview. “We will make sure they’re progressing and make sure they will succeed in the post-secondary level when they leave here.”

Without opportunities for extra credit or participation, students’ grades are 100 percent earned through their performance. But for students who need some interaction, enrolling in BeLA isn’t a permanent commitment.

“She can transition students back into the brick-and-mortar structure if they choose,” Milazzo said.

More information about the cyber program at Bellefonte Area, the Bellefonte eLearning Academy, can be found online at www.basd.net/Page/13918. It’s a question-and-answer with the cyber education coordinator.

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