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Virtual School

State to OK virtual schools

Michael Duclos uses both textbook and laptop to take a virtual course on history at Greenfield High School
11/12/4 MacDonald

Michael Duclos uses both textbook and laptop to take a virtual course on history at Greenfield High School STORY 11/12/4 MacDonald

GREENFIELD — A bill that would give the state increased control over public online schools — including Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy — is on its way to Gov. Deval Patrick for review after state legislators approved it this week.

Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy, established three years ago as the state’s first and only public online school, serves about 470 students from across Massachusetts. The proposed law would allow the Greenfield school to remain operational until at least 2016 — if the Greenfield School Committee decides it wants to continue the school.

Under the bill, the state’s board of elementary and secondary education would create a specific number of “commonwealth virtual schools” — public schools that use the Internet to teach students across Massachusetts. The schools would have to file annual reports to the state, and could be shut down if standards are not met.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has kept a wary eye fixed on Greenfield but has lacked real power to effectively oversee the school in any real way, said Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

“The department has not had enough direction and therefore has been struggling for how to appropriately regulate and manage this experiment,” said Rosenberg.

This new law “will allow them to establish regulations and enforce them in order to ensure the quality of the educational experience for students who enroll,” he said.

More state control

The proposed law gives the board of elementary and secondary education increased control in a number of ways.

The board possesses a number of commonwealth virtual school certificates — which it will periodically award to school districts or organizations that present a detailed proposal for a new virtual school. There could be up to three virtual schools operating in Massachusetts in 2014, and as many as 10 by 2019.

The schools would have to file annual performance reports and financial audits to the state — data that would be published online.

Those reports, combined with a new “digital learning advisory council,” would allow the state department to ensure that schools are operating effectively, legislators said.

Schools would be given a certificate of three to five years, and would have to apply for renewal to the state board when that time ran out. If a school did not achieve certain criteria, the board could choose to reject the renewal application and shut the school down.

The schools are funded following the School Choice system, where students’ home towns pay $5,000 to the district where the school is based.

But the law requires that at least 5 percent of the school’s total population must live in the host district — an effort to ensure that local officials have a vested interest in supporting the school and its students, legislators said.

At the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, about 3 percent of students live in Greenfield, said Superintendent Susan Hollins.

The 5 percent mark would be extremely difficult to reach, said local school officials. The school would have to reduce its total size or pull students from Greenfield “brick-and-mortar” schools — two things that were never in the original plans for the school, said Hollins.

Decisions to make in Greenfield

Early in the bill’s discussion, Rosenberg pushed for the insertion of a clause that would allow Greenfield the chance to automatically receive one of the virtual school certificates.

The law would also give Greenfield some leeway on the 5 percent requirement, allowing the town to work its way up to that mark over the next three to five years, said Rosenberg.

But it is not a guarantee that Greenfield will take the state up on its offer.

The Greenfield School Committee plans to thoroughly review the law in the coming months and discuss whether it would be in the district’s best interest to continue running the virtual school, said Chairman John Lunt.

That discussion will occur simultaneously with another conversation — whether or not Greenfield wants to sign a successor contract 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.

Greenfield’s three-year $2 million contract with K12 expires at the end of June. Some School Committee members have expressed concern about renewing the contract at a time when the company is being investigated in states across the country.

Hollins does not ignore the state and national discussions, but said she believes that the district should not lose sight of its main goal: improving Greenfield’s virtual school.

The district, not K12, handles the school’s administrative and financial decisions, said the superintendent.

“There are a lot of political issues going on with virtual schools across the nation. Greenfield really isn’t involved in them,” said Hollins.

“We have from the beginning said we were going to ... create a virtual school that lived up to its missions and its goals,” she said. “I think we’ve done that.”

Hollins said the virtual school 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.

The state department, when selecting which schools to grant certificates, would favor schools that aim to serve these populations, according to the proposed law.

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