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Students without virtual school

GREENFIELD — Speaking with wavering voices, families of seven Massachusetts Virtual Academy students pleaded with members of the Greenfield School Committee to reconsider their decision to not host a cyber school again next fall.

With some driving as long as two hours to attend Thursday night’s innovation subcommittee meeting, they all brought the same message: without the option to continue sending their students to the virtual school next fall, their children have nowhere to go.

For the past three years, Greenfield has operated the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — a locally controlled school that uses the Internet to teach 470 students across the state, including a dozen from Greenfield.

If closed on June 30, as expected, there will be at least a one-year delay before another school of its kind is allowed to open in Massachusetts. There is no indication that the School Committee will reverse its vote from last week — a decision that set off a prompt response from families in the form of letters, emails and an online petition to save the cyber school.

On Thursday, families took turns recounting their children’s stories to Superintendent Susan Hollins and subcommittee members Doris Doyle, John Lunt and Mayor William Martin.

Some children were bullied — one mother recounted how her kindergarten-aged daughter was pushed down a flight of stairs by a fifth-grader — and other students came home telling family members that they felt stupid they could not keep up in class.

And public schools across the state posed problems for their children, other parents said. A child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was placed in a classroom containing only others with the disorder. And another child, who experiences high anxiety whenever he hears loud sounds like alarms, fought his mother every day about leaving the home for school.

“This school was the answer to our prayers,” said Melissa Paige, of Orange, mother of 10-year-old student Emilee Martineau. “I’m terrified for my daughter’s education. ... The closing of this school is completely detrimental.”

“This is not about politics. It shouldn’t be about money,” said Sheila Rose, of Springfield, who attended the meeting with her husband Caleb and two children Richmond and Rebekah.

“It should be about the kids ... and what’s best for them is MAVA,” she said.

As a “virtual innovation” school, the Massachusetts Virtual Academy serves a student population that, for a variety of reasons — ranging from athletic and artistic endeavors to adverse neurological or biological conditions — cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school.

For those who couldn’t afford the high costs of private schooling or move their way through long wait lists at charter schools, the virtual school was the perfect and only place their children could learn, said parents.

But as Hollins and the subcommittee members explained on Thursday, the new law banned “virtual innovation” schools on July 1.

If Greenfield wanted to continue hosting a cyber school, it would have had to open a new state-run school, which would be overseen by a separate board. The district was given about six weeks to submit an application to the state, outlining their plans for the new school.

Deciding that its role as a locally elected body did not include setting up a state-run school, the Greenfield School Committee voted last week to not submit an application.

On Thursday, subcommittee members expressed sympathy with parents’ concerns, but said that the situation was out of their hands.

They wished that legislators had not removed a clause from the law that would have given them one year to “wind down” the school. And committee members encouraged the families to contact both their local representatives and the department of elementary and secondary education, to see if something could be done at the state level.

The fact that 470 students are currently without a school next fall is an “unintended circumstance of the law,” said Martin. The law said that only Greenfield could apply for next year, presumably because state officials expected the district would want to continue running a cyber school.

Martin stated his desire to help families transition out of the district, but said that it would have to be someone else outside Greenfield that assumes fiscal responsibility for ensuring their education.

Doyle, the subcommittee chairwoman, said that parents’ concerns were heard and would be passed on to the appropriate parties.

Lunt, the School Committee chairman, reiterated that as publicly elected officials, it was not in the local school board’s authority to set up a new state-run virtual school. It was a not a decision the committee took lightly, he said, but one that was forced by the law.

By the end of the meeting, several parents — including Michelle and Roy Defosses, of Waltham, whose 9-year-old daughter Danielle attends the school — began expressing a desire to rally support among themselves to make a change.

A petition on Change.org, “Legislators and Greenfield Public School District Officials: Save MAVA at Greenfield,” had nearly 500 signatures on Thursday night. Linda Pulaski, whose seventh-grader son David attends the school, presented the subcommittee with a printed version of the petition.

Also present from Greenfield were Jeanne Madore and Deanne Brochu, who each have high-school age grandsons attending the school.

The school’s principal Carl Tillona and head program administrator Ryan Clepper sat in the audience next to families, and did not speak.

School Committee members Marcia Day and Francia Wisnewski sat silently throughout the meeting as public observers. Member Maryelen Calderwood stood near the back of the room for the meeting’s final 15 minutes.

Member Daryl Essensa was not present.

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

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