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From cell phones to social media to computers, today's students are connected.

With the click of a mouse, students can gain access to scholarly articles. With the sending of a text, they can instantly reach family and friends. And with enrollment in a cyber charter school, they can take their entire course load online.

Yet with all these connections, some local schools are beginning to wonder if students are missing one: a connection to a home district.

"The nice thing about our program is that you're still our student," said Sharon Lawrence, Virtual Academy coordinator in the Shippensburg Area School District.

Last year, Shippensburg launched the Virtual Academy to provide its high school students with the opportunity to not only take online courses as enrichment or credit recovery, but to enroll fully in the Virtual Academy as an alternative to a cyber charter school.

Now, other local school districts are following suit, hoping to yield financial benefits for the district and offer academic benefits to students.

As of Tuesday morning, seven students had enrolled in Cumberland Valley's Eagle Academy, the district's alternative to a cyber charter school that will launch this school year.

On Thursday night, the Carlisle Area School District is expected to vote on online course offerings that will provide students enough credits to take full course loads online. If approved, the courses will form Carlisle's Academy On-Line, a full cyber school within the district that will be a pilot program in the 2010-11 school year.

"This whole thing was for us to gain control over the courses offered, (offer) opportunities to participate in Carlisle school district athletics and extra-curricular activities," Carlisle Superintendent John Friend said. "(Students) remain connected to the school district."

Cost savings

Shippensburg first started its online program when, during scheduling, students expressed an interest in classes like Chinese, Japanese and economics that the district could not offer, Lawrence said. Once the technology was in place, they decided to open the program up as an option to cyber charter school students who had left, she said.

The program is growing, and the data show cost savings, district Assistant Superintendent Beth Bender said.

Next week, the district will do an official count of enrollment for the 2010-11 school year, but two students from last year's program will continue and about 10 others have expressed interest, Lawrence said.

In its 2009-10 budget, Shippensburg paid $375,156 for students attending charter schools (including one student at a bricks-and-mortar charter school), Business Administrator Deborah Westover said. The 2009-10 cyber charter tuition rates in the Shippensburg Area School District were $7,249 for a regular education student and $17,675 for a special education student.

By contrast, educating students through its Virtual Academy is much less costly, Westover added.

"I would say the number one-reason any district would get into this is financial. Paying for a cyber school is a great (burden)," Bender said.

Tuition to cyber charter schools is determined by a formula based on each school district's expenditures. It takes into account each district's regular education, special education and support costs, among other expenditures. The rate varies from district to district.

In 2009-10, cyber charter costs made up $1.1 million of Carlisle's budget, an increase of $380,000 from the previous year's budget, Friend said.

The Cumberland Valley School District budgeted approximately $1.5 million for cyber charter tuition in its 2010-11 budget, district spokeswoman Tracy Panzer said. The cost per student at the Eagle Academy is $4,500.

Financial concerns aside, Shippensburg also found that students were grateful for the opportunity to remain in their district and graduate with their class, Bender said.

Some full-time Virtual Academy students took advantage of the extracurricular and after-school offerings, such as after-school math tutoring, Lawrence said.

"I've had opportunities to be able to help families with our program," Bender said. "I've seen the relief on their faces when they realize they can do this with us, the joy on the students' faces."

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Academic program

For Cumberland Valley, the driving force behind the Eagle Academy is academic, Panzer said. Eagle Academy is available to cyber students in grades four through 12. Lessons are developed using Cumberland Valley's curriculum and lesson plans, and students are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and earn a Cumberland Valley diploma, Panzer said.

"It's just sort of nice that (she can) have a diploma from the school in our area," said Lisa Hoerner, 54, of Middlesex Township, of her daughter, Tasha Bennett.

Bennett enrolled in the Eagle Academy for this coming school year after attending eighth and ninth grades in a cyber charter school. Tasha, 15, liked that the cyber charter school afforded her the opportunity to work at her own pace, Hoerner said.

Tasha, who took mostly honors courses in her cyber charter school, is now also thinking about trying out for the softball and volleyball teams at the high school, she said.

Between four and six students have expressed interest in Academy On-Line, Friend said. Students in the program, which is available to middle and high school students, will register for courses with the district's counselors, Friend said. The courses will be taught by teachers from Aventa, the district's online vendor, and have been evaluated and deemed comparable to those offered by the district, Friend said.

"A kid continues to stay connected to (his) home district. A kid has opportunities for extracurriculars and a Carlisle diploma," Friend said. "We can offer a program that is competitive with the cyber charter school offering."

The 11 cyber charter schools across the state continue to enroll students at a steady pace, and the growing number of districts looking to offer online learning opportunities validates cyber education, Carolyn Sell, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, said.

"I think it's a good thing," she said.

The only downsides are those districts whose programs are too uniform and unable to offer the individualized education that a cyber charter school can, she said.

‘Clear oversight'

Although a cyber charter education is a different experience from a traditional high school setting, many cyber students enroll to be able to dedicate their time to other passions, such as pre-professional skiing and dancing or volunteering, Sell said.

"Obviously, in the home setting, there isn't the school dance, the music lessons, the sports clubs," said Matt Ware, 38, of Silver Spring Township. "(But) after four years of being in the cyber charter schools, we've seen how things work well."

Ware's 10-year-old daughter, Rebekah, has been enrolled in cyber charter schools since first grade.

"We had a bunch of reasons. I'm going to say the top one is we really liked the clear oversight into the things she was learning," Ware said. "It made it much easier to understand how she thinks, how she learns."

Ware's family had considered the Eagle Academy for this coming school year, drawn to it for the opportunities for extra-curricular activities. In the end, they decided to stay with the cyber charter school, choosing a program with which they were familiar instead of one in its first year, Ware said.

Last year, the Mechanicsburg Area School District partnered with the Capital Area Intermediate Unit to offer Chinese I to students, said Steve Kessler, counseling department coordinator at Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School.

This year, the district has increased its online course offerings to include Chinese II, geography and a few science courses.

"We really see this as a direction we're going to be moving in, no question," he said, although the district has not yet discussed its own full-time cyber charter school.

"High school is such an important time in their lives... I think they sacrifice something for (full-time cyber school), although we would never deny a student the opportunity if it was appropriate."

Kessler has worked with seniors who take college courses online or who work at internships for part of the day but prefer to return to school to experience the high school culture, he said. He believes the best direction is to mix the classroom with online courses to provide students with opportunities that may not be available through the district, he said.

"Is this going to be a trend?" Kessler said. "I think its definitely going to move in this direction, to give the students more opportunities."

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