A Look Inside a Pennsylvania District's Cyberschool

Conneaut School District built its own online school and created curriculum to go with it.

by Mike Crowley, The Meadville Tribune, Pa. / September 19, 2016 0
Two students in Nebraska's O'Neill Public Schools participate in the 2014 Digital Learning Day. Flickr/Katie Morrow

(TNS) — Inside a Conneaut Area Senior High classroom with a handwritten sign on the door last week, three young women sat at a table stacked high with textbooks, gazing into the laptop screens before them. Seated in the middle, Paige Mead spoke to fellow ninth-grader Desalena Tallman as she looked from her own screen to Tallman's. Tallman pointed to Mead's screen as she responded quietly to Mead's question. At the other end of the table, ninth-grader Camie Mead, Paige's twin sister, was focused on the task on her screen.

"That's what I want," said Herb Bossard as he stood near the "Cyber Boot Camp" sign taped to the classroom door, "them teaching each other how to do this."

Bossard, a 30-year teaching veteran who has been teaching math in the Conneaut School District for the past 28 of those years, is spending more of his time these days as a "technology integrator" or, more informally, as the head of the district's cyber school program.

Students enrolled in that program begin each year with an orientation week -- Cyber Boot Camp. During the orientation, they become familiar with the online applications they'll be using, receive any devices they need, and meet with their teachers face to face. And, in what must seem to them like a trip back to the 20th century, they even receive old-fashioned hard copies of their textbooks in addition to the online versions they can access.

Over the last five years, Bossard has guided the program from a haphazard arrangement for just two students to an efficient system serving about 90. Some of those students are catching up on missing credits in order to graduate on time, some are taking extra courses to get ahead in order to graduate early, and others are taking classes online simply because they prefer working independently.

Six students will attend school full time this fall through the district's online program, the only one of its kind in the area. Another 85 will attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools while taking additional classes through the cyber program.

While other districts also offer online courses for their students, including full-time options, they contract with outside providers who design the classes. Conneaut has built the course contents for its programs from the ground up. Bossard estimated he had put 200 instructional videos on YouTube for his math classes over the past few years.

"One of my jobs when I was hired was to create the cyber program," said Jarrin Sperry, Conneaut's superintendent. "The one we were using before that wasn't fulfilling the needs of our district."

What started with two students taking trigonometry online with Bossard has grown into a program involving as many as 20 teachers in a given semester. The students range from seventh to 12th grades and take classes in math, English, government, health and other topics, including one of the program's most consistently popular subjects -- physical education.

That's right: about 15 Conneaut students will take an online gym class this fall.

But those imagining pajama-wearing kids playing "Madden NFL 17" as they wipe Cheetos crumbs off themselves have the wrong picture. In reality, students in Conneaut's online PE classes are issued Garmin smart watches that keep track of their heart rate and send the data to their instructors.

"You can't just come in and say, 'Hey, I played some ball last night,'" Bossard said.

In fact, online gym class is harder than traditional gym, according to Tallman.

"You have to keep your heart rate up high," she said. "In (traditional) gym class, you're not always doing that -- sometimes you take breaks."

If they like the program and keep their grades up, Tallman and the Meads could become the first students to attend all four years of high school through the Conneaut cyber program.

Keeping their grades up is more than just the same corny advice all students hear. Full-time Conneaut cyber students whose average drops below a C in any class are required to come back into traditional brick-and-mortar classes for a week. If it happens a second time, students are called back into the building again. After the third time, students become ineligible for the cyber program and must return to the traditional classroom or transfer to a private cyber school.

Having demonstrated they could not keep their grades up in Conneaut's cyber program, however, switching to a private cyber school might not be a good idea.

"We demand accountability," said Jody Sperry, Conneaut School Board president. "Students have to do the work and keep their grades up."

Superintendent Jarrin Sperry, who is not related to Jody Sperry, similarly emphasized the high expectations of the district's cyber program.

"Three strikes and you're back in the classroom," Jarrin said, "and you've shown that cyber school is not for you."

Whether cyber school is appropriate for everyone, private cyber schools have been attracting more and more students in recent years, and concerns over the effectiveness of those schools have fueled the growth of Conneaut's program.

Too often, said Jarrin Sperry, "Students can go to private cyber schools and accumulate zero credits -- and it's taxpayer money paying for it."

Taxpayers are forking over quite a bit of money for students to attend private cyber schools, it turns out. According to a presentation at the district's town hall meetings last spring by Supervisor of Special Education Susy Walters, Conneaut is billed $10,426 for each student enrolled in a private cyber school. That price tag goes up to $20,358 for special education students.

All told, Conneaut spent more than $1.5 million on 123 students attending private cyber schools last year.

Jarrin Sperry hopes to attract some of those students back to the district's program. The district would save thousands on each student who chooses Conneaut's cyber option over a private cyber school. And instead of paying thousands to outside providers for the courses, students would take courses developed by teachers in the district. Sperry said Conneaut had managed to develop its own program for less than $30,000.

In addition, Sperry even has hopes of eventually attracting students from other districts to Conneaut's program. With that goal in mind, the school board set a tuition fee of less than $6,000 for full-time cyber students from outside the district who attend Conneaut's cyber program.

Sperry and Bossard hope to attract students to the program based not only on the potential savings but on the program's reputation.

Two years ago, the first Conneaut student graduated early by taking additional classes online through the program. Last year two students graduated early.

If all goes well, five students will graduate early this year.

Rather than allowing students to stay at home and fall through the cracks, the program allows students the autonomy to work at their own pace, according to Victor Susol, a Conneaut Lake Middle School teacher who has taught an 11th-grade English class in the cyber program for several years. Students develop real-world skills in the process.

"The more they exercise that self-determination at a young age, the better off they are," he said. "I would have loved this. I wish I could go back in time and do it."

Susol and others involved in the Conneaut's cyber program stressed the goal was to offer more options so that students could achieve the best possible results. They also emphasized the district's full-time cyber students were just as much Conneaut students as those who spend all day in the brick-and-mortar buildings.

"They get a Conneaut education and a Conneaut diploma," said Jody Sperry, "and we know they complete the course work."

They can also participate in any extracurricular activity, Bossard said. "Dances, sports, plays, field trips, the vo-tech, all of those things."

With cyber options available for so many classes, can online extracurricular activities be far behind? Perhaps the possibility sounds far-fetched, but the plan for launching their cyber program undoubtedly seemed like a pipe dream to some just a few years ago.

"Trust me, it was a daunting task at first," Bossard said. "If everyone wasn't involved -- guidance counselors, teachers, principals -- we couldn't do it."

"The first two years, like anything, it was a little bit of a madhouse," he recalled. "Now it's just a normal part of our life in Conneaut."

©2016 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.