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State puts conditions on virtual school

GREENFIELD — State officials have classified Greenfield’s cyber school application as “weak,” but will recommend the town be allowed to host a new state-authorized virtual school for the next three years.

But local virtual school leaders must send the state three documents for approval in the coming months: the school’s bylaws by July 15, a draft contract with for-profit curriculum provider company K12 by Aug. 1 and an annual goals plan for the school by Dec. 1.

The virtual school must also be prepared to properly serve special education students as well as recruit, enroll and serve English language learners — and state officials will conduct an inspection in Greenfield to ensure this occurs. And it must make sure curriculum meets the Massachusetts standards applied to brick and mortar schools by September 2014.

A law signed in January gave the state more oversight of Massachusetts virtual schools — public schools that use the Internet to teach students across the state. There is currently only one: Greenfield’s 3-year-old Massachusetts Virtual Academy.

Greenfield needed state approval, in the form of a certificate, to transform its virtual innovation school into a new, independent state-authorized cyber school. It now looks like that will happen at Tuesday’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.

In a memo to the board, state education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the decision will honor the Legislature’s wishes for Greenfield to continue its school and will avoid displacing the school’s 470 students. But, while these next three years will serve as an opportunity to learn and develop best practices, the stakes will be higher in 2016.

“The Legislature acknowledged Greenfield’s pioneering role in establishing a virtual innovation school and expressed its intent to give Greenfield a fair opportunity to adjust to the extensive requirements of the new statute,” he wrote. “When the certificate comes up for renewal, we will hold the school accountable to high standards, but fairness dictates that they be given the opportunity to succeed.”

Ed Berlin, the unofficial leader of the proposed virtual school board of trustees, said he was hesitant to comment fully on Wednesday because Superintendent Susan Hollins and the five proposed trustees were analyzing the memo to determine the effects it would have on the school.

“We’re really happy ... that we now have most of the information to be able to put a plan together by July 1. We’re still in process of reviewing it very, very closely,” said Berlin.

Greenfield School Committee Chairman John Lunt said he hadn’t seen the memo Wednesday. The School Committee has overseen the virtual school since its beginning but will have no authority over it after June 30.

Greenfield’s proposal had asked for a five-year certificate and increased funding from the base amount of $4,925 per student to between $7,600 and $8,500 per student. Students’ host districts foot the tuition bills, similar to the School Choice model.

The state will increase the tuition from the base amount but set the tuition below Greenfield’s request — at $6,625 per student, plus additional money to pay for special education students’ individualized services.

“We were persuaded that the $5,000 school choice tuition was insufficient, but did not feel Greenfield had sufficiently made the case for the higher amount it requested,” said state spokesman JC Considine.

“The $6,700 figure (the tuition to Greenfield plus $75 retained by the state) is based on data available about the costs of other schools nationally. We are open to revisiting this issue in subsequent years as the school submits audited financial data to give us a better basis for making this determination,” he said.

The Greenfield virtual school can expand to enroll as many as 750 for this upcoming school year, including 250 at the high school level. The state has allowed it to prioritize students already enrolled, Greenfield residents and target groups of students who may otherwise struggle in brick-and-mortar schools.

But the virtual school must first send the state an enrollment policy, including plans for an admissions lottery which would fill seats after prioritized students were accepted.

Since the virtual school will be its own autonomous entity, Greenfield’s proposal includes a plan to contract with the Greenfield School Department for managerial and data services and with Greenfield’s financial department for treasurer services.

The school also plans to continue contracting with Virginia-based for-profit company K12 for curriculum services — but the state will need to review and approve this contract first.

The state wants more clarity on the school’s plan to monitor student progress and intervene when students are struggling. State officials want to ensure that all courses are taught by Massachusetts-certified teachers and that by September 2014, the school’s curriculum is aligned with state standards.

The state also wants the school to develop a plan to provide meals to students outside the Greenfield area who qualify for free or discounted meals.

And officials shot down the local plan to pay virtual school board members $200 per meeting. The five trustees — Berlin, Paul Bassett, Christopher Joseph, Michael Phillips and Christina Powell — may receive some expense reimbursements, for things like travel.

Assuming the board follows the commissioner’s request to offer Greenfield a certificate, and if the town accepts, Greenfield will host the state’s only virtual school for at least a year.

The state will accept letters of intent this summer from other school committees and/or educational collaboratives interested in opening up their own virtual schools.

To view Greenfield’s virtual school proposal, go to this shortened Web address: http://bit.ly/17nq3Ys

To view the proposed virtual school budget, go to: http://bit.ly/191DQEC

You can reach Chris Shores at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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