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Virtual School

Virtual school gets final state approval

Local board takes over next week

GREENFIELD — A state education board voted 9-1 Tuesday morning to allow Greenfield to run the state’s first Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School for at least three years — officially ending six months of uncertainty about the town’s cyber school future.

The Greenfield-based public virtual school will use the Internet to teach up to 750 students across the state this fall, including as many as 250 in high school. The 3-year-old Massachusetts Virtual Academy currently serves 470 primarily grade-school students — a dozen from Greenfield — who struggle in public brick-and-mortar schools.

Unlike its predecessor, this virtual school will have increased state oversight. And a five-member board of trustees, not the Greenfield School Committee, will independently run the school starting next week.

“The new board of trustees is diligent, intelligent, and interested in goals of this school,” said Superintendent Susan Hollins. “I believe Greenfield’s unique virtual school has a good future in store and that the original goals for creating the school, including benefit for Greenfield and its students, will be fulfilled.”

Ed Berlin, a Greenfield resident who has become the unofficial leader of the future board of trustees, said the group was relieved to learn the state would approve the school — and is now ready to take over next week.

The future trustees, not yet bound by the state’s Open Meeting Law, have been planning the cyber school in truly a virtual fashion — through a blend of in-person meetings, conference calls and email exchanges.

Berlin, a lawyer and former assistant district attorney who once ran for mayor in Greenfield, said the trustees intend to start the school by contracting curriculum services with for-profit company K12 and managerial services with the Greenfield School Department — although he said he wants both of those arrangements to be flexible, especially with K12, which has come in for its share of criticism and scrutiny nationally in the past.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s vote Tuesday supported a recommendation made last week by Commissioner Mitchell Chester — who imposed some conditions on the certificate.

He said the future board of trustees must send the state three documents for approval in the coming months: the school’s bylaws by July 15, a draft contract with 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.

“I’m pleased to hear that the school will go forward,” said Greenfield School Committee Chairman John Lunt. “I think it’s best for everyone that the state has assumed a greater oversight role.”

The vote on Tuesday represented a “big victory” for the families who had fought for the school to continue, said Orange resident Melissa Paige, whose 11-year-old daughter Emilee Martineau is already enrolled in the school’s sixth-grade next year.

“We understand that there are changes to come and we’re willing to accept those changes,” she said. “But for us, our children’s education is really the most important thing.”

The virtual school board of trustees — Berlin, Paul Bassett, Christopher Joseph, Michael Phillips and Christina Powell — will take over the school’s reins on July 1 and meet regularly throughout the summer, beginning July 8.

Six months of uncertainty

The passage of a law in January, which gave the state authority to grant virtual school certificates to interested applicants, set the wheels in motion for a bumpy six months of Greenfield school politics.

It had initially seemed like smooth sailing. Hollins and a majority of the school board have long supported the school as a haven for students who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to perform well in public brick-and-mortar schools.

And while the town needed to submit an application to the state by late March, this had originally been considered a formality — since the Legislature included a special provision for Greenfield to keep its virtual school.

But then, three school board members reversed their opinions. The School Committee voted 5-2 against a motion to submit an application — citing a concern that the local school would become a state-run entity.

Parents of the school’s students waged a campaign to save the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — petitioning legislators and the state, attending school board meetings and flooding school officials’ online mailboxes with letters in support of the school. Among them was Paige, who told the committee that the school “was the answers to our prayers” after public schools were unable or unwilling to accommodate her daughter’s special education needs.

The families’ response, coupled with assurances from the state that it would collaborate with Greenfield to make it work, convinced the school board to change its mind again in late March. After long hours of drafting and debating the virtual school proposal, Greenfield sent it to the state in April.

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

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