Public school teachers who ply their passion online find that the learning environment made available through cyber charter schools gives them and their students considerable flexibility and room for creativity.
But they are also quick to point out that families must be fully engaged with students at home to maximize the benefits of online learning.
This is where “learning coaches” come into play, Beth Mulhollan, a Kindergarten teacher with the Agora Cyber Charter School, explained in an interview.
The Agora Cyber Charter School, based in King of Prussia, is among 15 public cyber schools that provide individualized education to more than 34,000 students in 498 of the state’s 500 school districts, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
“This learning coach would be an adult figure who would help them to focus, to remind them of how to get into the system, to keep their attention engaged in classes and to motivate them to participate,” Mulhollan said. “These kids do catch on quick, but it’s imperative to have a learning coach assist them to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
On Monday, Governor Wolf announced that schools and businesses across the state would remain closed “until further notice” in response to rising concerns over the COVID-19, the contagious respiratory infection caused by the new coronavirus. This announcement will likely further exacerbate tension between cyber schools that continue to provide education largely uninterrupted, while many conventional schools struggle to find their footing—in some cases, providing online education for the first time.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators has reportedly been lobbying the Department of Education to impose a moratorium against cyber charter enrollment while brick and mortar schools remain closed. Since cyber schools do not need to have their teachers and students physically gather inside a building, they can continue to offer lesson plans.
The technological tools available to the Agora community have made a strong impression on Mulhollan, who has been with Agora for 13 years.
“Every child is able to participate without having to wait for their turn and while they are working, the teacher can see their work in progress,” she said. “It’s like magic. At least, it feels like magic and my five and six-year-old students always seem amazed that I can see what they are drawing on the computer as they draw it.”
While the state education department delayed online instruction for conventional districts due to concerns over serving special-needs students, Regina Mallon, who has been a special education instructor at Agora for nine years, is greatly encouraged by the impact cyber learning has had on her students.
“I have a special education roster and that’s where I see many of the positives of cyber education because many of these students have issues that districts may not be addressing,” she said. “The students may have developed anxiety issues, behavior issues, or have been bullied in their district school. But I would say eight of out 10 times when a student comes to Agora the parents have told me they are much more relaxed. They seem to do much better in a cyber environment. Sometimes behavior issues go away, sometimes anxiety issues go away. That is the biggest thing I have seen in my position as a special education instructor.”
In this time of crisis, cyber charter schools may be the only option available to students and their parents who support public schools with their tax dollars. The Erie School District, for instance, has closed “indefinitely” with no continuing education right now as a result of the governor's order. School administrators who receive a taxpayer-funded salary while working to prevent taxpayers from exploring education alternatives seem to forget that education dollars are for the students. This funding is not theirs to keep.
No one who was interviewed describes cyber charters as a panacea for educational needs, but they do view them as a viable option for families that are unsatisfied with district schools.
Deborah Lavacca, who has been a first and second-grade teacher with Agora for the past 11 years, is familiar with several cases where online learning has made a critical difference. But like her colleagues, she encourages policymakers and the broader public to be mindful of both the advantages and disadvantages of cyber learning.
“I think you have to be honest in saying this model isn’t for everyone,” she said. “Students need to have someone at home willing to commit and make sure they are doing the work. But I’ve heard so many stories from students about how lost they were in brick and mortar schools, but then had so much growth here because they had one-on-one attention.”