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Virtual School

Board OKs Virtual school

GREENFIELD — In a dramatic reversal from its vote just three weeks earlier, the Greenfield School Committee decided Thursday that it wanted to continue hosting a cyber school to help students across the state who say they struggle in brick-and-mortar schools.

The committee voted 5-2 to draft a proposal to the state to transition its 3-year-old virtual innovation school into a new state-authorized virtual school. The committee has until April 22 to write, approve and submit the proposal — which is, essentially, a blueprint for how the school will run — and state officials have offered to help and answer questions during the process.

Although there are still many decisions to make and steps to take before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education can officially sign off on the school in June, there is now a strong likelihood that Greenfield will continue hosting the only virtual school in Massachusetts.

There has been confusion surrounding a new law that is forcing the district to transition the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — which uses the Internet to teach 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield — into a new state-authorized virtual school by July 1.

Many committee members had been under the impression that they would be setting up a new school run by the state, something they did not believe they had the authority to do. But state officials have assured the local school board that they want to work with them to open the first Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School, and that the process would be a learning experience for both parties.

Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education, fielded questions for an hour from the committee at Thursday’s meeting. He said it will be a local school, with more state oversight. The state is “not expecting every question to be answered” in Greenfield’s proposal, he said.

“We’d expect the conversation to continue right up until the opening of school and beyond,” he told committee members. “There’s nothing in the proposal that is cast in stone and can’t be modified based on experience.”

His arguments were able to convince three members — Marcia Day, Chairman John Lunt and Mayor William Martin — to change their minds and vote in favor of continuing a virtual school. Members Doris Doyle and Daryl Essensa had been the only two to previously vote to submit a proposal, and they upheld that vote Thursday.

Day had voted against submitting a proposal in February because she had believed that the district would be giving up local control of its school. The clarification from Wulfson changed her mind, she said.

Doyle has been a longtime supporter of the virtual school and what it offers for students who cannot attend brick-and-mortar schools. She said that the information she heard from Wulfson about the state’s willingness to work with Greenfield only supported her opinion.

Essensa said she supported the motion because the school board had a responsibility to all of the 470 students who were enrolled in Massachusetts Virtual Academy, a Greenfield public school.

“These are our students. These families are our families,” she said.

Lunt had long been in favor of the virtual school, but had voted “no” last month because he didn’t think the committee should create a state-run school. New clarifications on the law and the state’s willingness to work with the local district shifted his opinion back to favoring the operation of a virtual school, he said.

Martin also reversed his decision from last month. He spoke of the possible benefits it would have for the town — which include the free virtual education for local students and potential jobs if curriculum company K12 sets up a local headquarters here. He said that the district should continue what it started: running a school that could serve students across the state who need it.

Maryelen Calderwood and Francia Wisnewski were the two dissenting votes on Thursday.

Calderwood, who has voted against the virtual school since its inception, said she opposes initiatives that keep students out of the classroom for their primary education. And she said that information presented by Wulfson made moving ahead even more of a concern because it is unclear what exactly this new school will be and to what degree it will resemble a charter school.

“I’m not in the business of opening up charter schools,” she said. “(And) I never dreamed I’d be bargaining a contract with a corporation (for-profit curriculum company K12) for educational services.”

Wisnewski, who extended her compassion to the families of students in the school, said there were still too many questions for her to support continuing the virtual school. She wondered how Greenfield taxpayers would be affected, who would choose the new board members, who will govern the virtual school and if test scores would continue to be low.

Future questions to discuss

Test scores, K12’s involvement and financial implications for the town were all discussed at length on Thursday — during the public comment period, the question-and-answer session with Wulfson and the committee’s deliberation.

Lauded by educators, parents and some members for its ability to adapt to the individual student’s learning styles, K12 has been simultaneously criticized by other members for making a profit on public education and for producing low test scores.

Wulfson said he wasn’t concerned about the low test scores but some committee members stressed that it was an issue that shouldn’t be ignored.

Town Councilor Hillary Hoffman told the committee during the public comment section that she was “extremely uncomfortable with Greenfield trailblazing in this area” when there was so much uncertainty surrounding the governance and budget structure of this new arrangement.

Greenfield resident Jeff Comenitz expressed his desire for the school district to produce an analysis of what the school has cost the town in the past, and what it is expected to cost in the future.

Martin said that the school has cost the town nothing, and that K12 has provided discounted services over the past three years. The school was funded by tuition from districts that sent students, similar to the School Choice model, but was capped at $5,000 per student. The proposal for a new school will likely call for increased tuition to fully cover administrative costs.

The school board must determine the extent to which the new school would contract administrative services with the district. Committee members want to allow the current administration to be involved initially, before the virtual school develops its own administration.

Members discussed the idea of hosting a public hearing to gather input from Greenfield residents.

During a lengthy public comment period, multiple people spoke in favor of the school and how it would help students who struggled in brick-and-motar schools.

But Andrew Blais, a former School Committee member, said the difficult experience of having to navigate a brick-and-mortar school with artificial legs was an important one in his life.

“I did it, and I’m glad I did it,” he said.

Families pleased with reversal

Three weeks ago, it seemed that Greenfield’s virtual school future would be over by July 1.

But families of the school’s students engaged in an advocacy campaign that reached from Greenfield to Beacon Hill.

Through letters, emails, online petitions and videos and during subcommittee meetings, they argued that their children could not attend brick-and-mortar schools. Because no other virtual schools can form until at least the 2014-15 school year, families feared their best and only option for free cyber schooling would soon disappear unless Greenfield went forward under the new arrangement.

Several families attended Thursday’s meeting and fourth-grader Steven Holik spoke in favor of the school during the public comment section.

“I am very encouraged tonight,” said Linda Pulaski, a Greenfield resident, whose 12-year-old son David attends the school. “I am sympathetic, too, to the questions that are out there, but to hear that the state is going to be so helpful ... it’s really wonderful that it’s happening for this group of students.”

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

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