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Virtual School

Tonight’s vote could kill virtual school

For three years, Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy has used the Internet to teach nearly 500 Massachusetts students who, for a variety of reasons, felt they could not attend brick-and-mortar schools.

But now, in the wake of newly enacted legislation that gives the state control over cyber schools, it remains unclear if these students will be enrolled in the Greenfield School District next fall.

The Greenfield School Committee is scheduled to vote tonight whether the district should apply to become a “commonwealth virtual school.” As the home of the lone virtual school in Massachusetts, Greenfield is the only district that can apply this year and must do so by March 25.

A “yes” vote would mean that, because of a key clause in the law, Greenfield would automatically become the first official commonwealth virtual school.

A “no” vote would effectively kill the virtual school, with no guarantee that the school could keep its doors open, so to speak, after June 30.

It may not be so cut and dried. There’s a chance that the committee could push the vote to its March 21 meeting, giving members one more month to weigh the financial and ideological pros and cons of running a state-monitored school.

And there’s also the possibility that the committee will vote “yes” so as not to miss the deadline, but then change its mind after examining the issue further in the coming months.

The School Committee remains divided over the virtual school’s fate. The school has been lauded in the past as a pioneer in virtual education and a safe haven for students with neurological or biological conditions, for whom attending a brick-and-mortar school may be very difficult.

Other members have criticized the school’s test scores, which fall below the state average. Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores from 2012 show that 62 percent of the school’s students scored proficient or higher in English/language arts and 33 percent reached proficient level or higher in mathematics — compared to state averages of 69 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

And some are concerned about the district’s relationship with K12 — a for-profit online education company that provides teachers, curriculum, online learning tools and physical course materials for the district’s virtual school. The company is under investigation in Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee for allegations of grade fraud and using unlicensed teachers.

Superintendent Susan Hollins has argued that those issues aren’t relevant here because Greenfield maintains administrative control over its school and only uses licensed faculty. And she said she likes the school’s requirement that students can move at their own pace through the curriculum, unable to move on to the next lesson until they’ve mastered each topic.

With less than a month to go before the March 25 application deadline, the School Committee is also under pressure to find a home for the school’s students next fall.

Hollins said even if the district closed its school, the intention was always to have an additional year to “wind down” — so as not to force parents and students to scramble to find a new school during the spring and summer.

But the law states that virtual “innovation” schools like Greenfield’s will cease to exist after June 30. Unless the state bends the rules, the only way the Greenfield virtual school could open its doors is if the School Committee voted to submit an application to the state.

An innovation subcommittee met Wednesday night with the hopes of bringing a recommendation to tonight’s meeting, but its two present members could not come to a consensus.

Member Doris Doyle, who chairs the innovation subcommittee, argued that the committee should take more time to think about the issue. Regardless of what the committee ultimately decides, choosing to not submit an application would eliminate that chance for future discussion, she said.

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t respond to the (state’s request for proposals) and keep our options open,” she said.

But School Committee Chairman John Lunt, who said he had long been a proponent for the virtual school, argued in favor of a “no” vote.

Unlike the “innovation school” that the Greenfield district has run for the last three years, the state would have ultimate control over this virtual school. He was uncomfortable that the school would become like a charter school — run by its own board of directors, not the School Committee, which would report to state officials.

“There have been attacks on the school that I consider to be unfair and ill-informed and ideologically biased. We have spent an enormous amount of time addressing that,” he said, adding that in his mind these things should not factor into the present debate.

“The main issue is, what is a commonwealth virtual school, and is it in the purview of the Greenfield School Committee and the Greenfield Public School District?” he said. “I don’t believe the answer is ‘yes.’ I wish I was wrong. I wish it stayed an innovation school.”

Mayor William Martin, the third member of the innovation subcommittee, was not at Wednesday’s meeting and could not be reached for comment. Doyle indicated that Martin had told her he planned to vote ‘no.’

Among the other four School Committee voting members, Maryelen Calderwood has been an outspoken opponent of the virtual school.

“Only when we use online learning as a supplement to in-class instruction, and when it is run without profit, will I find this model acceptable,” she said.

Member Francia Wisnewski has also voiced concerns over the school, asking for more transparency about K12 and the education students are receiving.

Marcia Day and Daryl Essensa have not publicly stated their recent opinions on the virtual school debate. Essensa attended Wednesday’s subcommittee meeting as a public observer.

Even with tonight’s planned vote, Doyle scheduled a subcommittee meeting next week so that members and school administrators could begin a cost benefit analysis to see if it’s in the district’s interest to continue the school.

Among the things they’ll look into: the time and effort that Greenfield administrators will have to devote to the virtual school next year, how many free “virtual” courses Greenfield public school students could take in brick-and-mortar schools and how much money the district would lose if its dozen local students left the district for another virtual school in the future.

Hollins said that she met with administrators of Greenfield brick-and-mortar schools this week and that they were overwhelmingly in favor of the School Committee submitting an application.

She said that media outlets have attacked the virtual school with slanted opinions and lies, and that she believes local citizens support the school.

K12 officials would be willing to fly up from their Virginia base to speak with School Committee members, she said.

The School Committee meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the high school library.

Chris Shores can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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