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Virtual School

Tide turning toward virtual school

GREENFIELD — When Greenfield School Committee debates on Thursday whether to open a new state-authorized virtual school, it will be discussing a school that will be governed by a separate board, have its own budget and pay Greenfield administrators for their services.

In the eyes of some committee members, it would be the school Greenfield envisioned when it opened the Massachusetts Virtual Academy in 2010. The new school would not be subsidized by any local dollars and would provide an education for students, both in and out of the district, who can’t attend brick-and-mortar schools.

After three years of pioneering the first and only cyber school in Massachusetts, the committee has spent the last month trying to determine its future in virtual education. Members’ opinions have swayed back and forth as they have tried to make sense of a law passed this January.

Now, it seems, the picture is becoming clearer, although the details are still fuzzy. The school would be autonomous, but could contract administrative services from the district and curriculum services from the Virginia-based for-profit company K12.

Greenfield students could continue attending the virtual school for free, and local brick-and-mortar students could tap into more specialized elective virtual courses that the district could not otherwise afford, some members contend.

Other members are wary of the school’s charter-like model and have questioned the effectiveness of virtual education as the primary source for children’s learning.

One thing is clear: the fate of a local virtual school will be determined at Thursday’s meeting. The Greenfield School Committee is running out of time for virtual school deliberation.

The law in question will force Greenfield to close its “innovation” virtual school on June 30 and then open a new state-authorized one the next day — a task that administrators have called daunting and inconvenient.

There was confusion over just how much influence the local school board would have, or should have, in running this new Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School. Committee members thought they would be overstepping their bounds in creating what they viewed as a state-run entity. But then state officials tried to assure the committee that it would continue to be a locally run school, albeit with more reporting and state oversight.

All the while, 470 Massachusetts Virtual Academy students, including a dozen from Greenfield, waited in an educational limbo. Families who said their children could not attend brick-and-mortar schools believed their best and only option for free cyber schooling would soon disappear at least for a year unless Greenfield went forward under the new arrangement.

The School Committee’s innovation subcommittee — whose three members meet regularly to discuss the district’s innovation schools, including its virtual school — is now unanimously in favor of sending in a proposal to the state.

If one other member on the full committee can be swayed to join their side, Greenfield will begin drafting a proposal to the state for its new state-authorized virtual school.

And if the other four vote against it, then Greenfield’s virtual school saga will officially end on June 30. That will also be the last day that there will be a virtual school in the state until at least summer 2014, when other districts may start their own cyber schools.

Effects on Greenfield

Jeff Wulfson, the deputy commissioner for the department of elementary and secondary education, spoke with the subcommittee this week and plans to travel to Greenfield for next Thursday’s meeting.

His explanation of how the state would not be running the school — and how the host district could be involved to whatever degree it wanted — was enough to sway Chairman John Lunt and Mayor William Martin to reconsider their votes and push for the maximum five-year certificate.

The school would be run by a separate board of trustees, who would not be Greenfield School Committee members. It would have its own budget but could contract with Greenfield for administrative support and consulting, before eventually hiring its own senior administrators.

Martin said that for no cost to local taxpayers and with limited involvement by the school district, Greenfield could continue to receive free virtual education for its students — while also continuing to offer an educational haven for others across the state.

“It’s plain at this point to see the educational leadership in the state is taking a lead from Greenfield,” said Martin. “We brought forward the possibility and viability of virtual learning (and now) we are asked to continue our initiative and provide that service for children in the state.”

Martin also said that K12 expressed interest in setting up a headquarters in Greenfield and hiring a few dozen employees from the local labor force.

One month ago, the committee felt overwhelmed by a short deadline to submit a proposal to the state and felt it could not justify running a state-operated entity,

Only two of seven School Committee members — Innovation Subcommittee Chairwoman Doris Doyle and member Daryl Essensa — voted to go forward with the school last month.

Now, with the vote coming up again, it’s unclear if other members outside the subcommittee will also change their minds. Questions about virtual education and financial implications for Greenfield residents may factor into the decision.

Member Maryelen Calderwood said that when the School Committee started the virtual school, by signing a contract with for-profit curriculum company K12, it made its decision “on the heels of a lot of emotion when we had approximately a $1 million deficit.”

“My fear is that we are once again acting in haste,” she said. “Charter schools are predators for public school funds. I am not in the business of opening a charter school.”

The other committee members could not be reached Friday.

New school could contract services with district

If the committee voted to go forward with the school, it would then need to write and send a proposal to the state for review by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Since the state has agreed to help Greenfield with its proposal, it bodes well for the likelihood that the board would respond favorably.

“I think it’s fair and accurate to say that (Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s) recommendation is important and a key signal to the Board about the strength and promise of any proposal,” said spokesman JC Considine.

Among the details to be hashed out: the extent to which the new school would contract services with the district.

“Initially (Superintendent Susan Hollins), as the only experienced administrator to run a school like this, would have to be involved,” said Lunt, the committee chairman. “Certainly this virtual school needs to develop its own senior administration.”

The state has said that it would be perfectly acceptable for the district and new school to create a collaborative relationship of this kind — especially in Greenfield where local administrators have run the school for the past three years.

The task of starting a new virtual school, the first of its kind in Massachusetts, took a great deal of time and energy, said Lunt. The district has since found its footing but the school is by no means running on auto-pilot, as Hollins has said that her staff dedicates nearly as much time to the virtual school as any brick-and-mortar one.

Test scores have been poor, among the lowest in the state. School officials have contended that this is not a true assessment of the school’s educational value, and that the low scores could be for a number of reasons.

As is the case now, the future school would be funded by students’ tuition, paid for by their home districts, in a way that resembles the School Choice model.

While the Massachusetts Virtual Academy could only charge $5,000 per student, this new school could ask districts for more — which would fully cover administrative costs of the new school.

“The realities of running the school have to be recognized in the funding mechanism,” said Lunt, who said the final per-pupil cost would be discussed when the district drafts its proposal.

Martin contends that the town has never lost money on the school, and that it was K12, the curriculum company, that provided some of its services at a discount because of the state per-pupil cap.

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

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