Greenfield must apply to keep virtual school
Michael Duclos uses both textbook and laptop to take a virtual course on history at Greenfield High School
Strawberries hand dipped in chocolate from Richardson's Candy Kitchen
GREENFIELD — The clock is now ticking. If Greenfield wants to continue its virtual school this fall, it must submit an application to the state by March 25.
Because of a new law passed last month, any Massachusetts organization that wants to run a “virtual commonwealth school” — a public cyber school funded by School Choice money that teaches Massachusetts students via the Internet — must first get approval from the state.
Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy will be grandfathered into the system, provided the town sends the state detailed information about its three-year-old school in the next six weeks.
An innovation subcommittee — consisting of Greenfield School Committee Chairman John Lunt, and members Doris Doyle and Mayor William Martin — will work with Superintendent Susan Hollins to gather information on budget, personnel and school policies for the application.
Then, the whole School Committee must officially vote to proceed before anything is sent to the state, said Lunt.
A divided School Committee
That vote, which will likely occur during a meeting next month, will not be unanimous.
The virtual school issue has divided the School Committee. Some members praise it as an innovative school that provides a haven for students who cannot attend “brick-and-mortar” schools. Others are uncomfortable by its relationship with private curriculum provider K12 and say the school has poor academic performance and weak oversight of students.
“A lot of kids have been helped by this program. I would like to see it continue,” said Lunt. “But I know that there are school committee members who feel differently and I’m sure we’ll have a lively debate.”
Member Maryelen Calderwood — an opponent of children learning at home, away from a school environment — said that online learning should only be used to supplement in-class instruction.
And she criticized the involvement of multi-million dollar for-profit companies, like K12 — a Virginia-based online company that provides teachers, curriculum, online learning tools and physical course materials for the town’s virtual school.
“The model offered by K12, Inc., now in operation for over 10 years, has yielded poor performance on state standardized tests, are the subject of numerous investigations and are the perfect example of how public money is used by profiteers,” she said.
Member Francia Wisnewski said that there are many unanswered questions about the school that need to be brought into the open before a vote occurs.
“Our community deserves transparency and continuous feedback so they know and understand how their tax money is spent,” she said. “Our society is best served when publicly funded schools are accountable to the whole community and open to all children. We need to inform our community ... and make them part of this decision.”
A key point that will factor into the discussions: whether Greenfield will be able to meet a requirement that states that 5 percent of its students must be from within the district. If the state allowed the school to remain open this fall, it would have to meet the 5 percent mark by 2016.
About 3 percent of the school’s 470 students are Greenfield residents. To reach the 5 percent requirement, the virtual academy would have to reduce its total size or pull students from Greenfield “brick-and-mortar” schools — two things that Hollins has said were never in the original plans for the school.
Members Marcia Day, Doris Doyle, Daryl Essensa and Martin did not respond to requests for comment.
Becoming a virtual
The new law gives the state the power to award up to three commonwealth virtual school “certificates” through 2016, and there could be as many as 10 by 2019.
The state issued its first “request for proposals” Tuesday. Greenfield’s, the lone virtual school in the state, is the only organization that can apply this time around. Other interested organizations can apply this fall and wouldn’t be able to open their doors until fall 2014.
Among the information school officials must submit are the virtual school’s bylaws, its contract with third-party curriculum provider K12, teacher biographies and how it monitors academic performance and attendance.
The state department will review the application, and then in April hold a public hearing and interview Greenfield school officials. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would then vote on May 21 to grant a three-year certificate of operation.
The Greenfield school was opened three years ago as a “innovation school.” But state officials said that beginning this summer, virtual innovation schools that serve multiple districts can no longer exist. If Greenfield wants its cyber school to stay open this fall, it needs to respond to the state’s request for proposals.
Hollins and some School Committee members were surprised by the short amount of time they will have to turn around information to the state.
JC Considine, spokesman for the department of elementary and secondary education, said the state set a March deadline to ensure that the school, after the entire application process was complete, would still have enough time to prepare and recruit for the start of the 2013-2014 year.
“I think the key thing to remember is that the law states that Virtual Innovation Schools can no longer exist as of July 1,” said Considine. “So we needed to develop a timeline with that date in mind and taking into account the various steps required.”
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