State’s virtual school law now in effect
Local officials to decide Greenfield school’s fate
Michael Duclos uses both textbook and laptop to take a virtual course on history at Greenfield High School STORY 11/12/4 MacDonald
GREENFIELD — Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law Thursday a bill that will give the state increased control over public online schools — setting the stage for a major decision in Greenfield as school officials ponder the district’s virtual school future.
The board of elementary and secondary education now controls the number of virtual school licenses that will allow public online schools to operate and use the Internet to teach students across the state. The number of available certificates increases gradually from three this year to 10 by 2019.
The state will be able to closely monitor the schools’ academic and financial records and could pull the plug on a school if it is not performing well. When their certificates expire after three to five years, schools must reapply and demonstrate that they have adhered to certain standards and regulations in order to have that certificate renewed.
Greenfield’s Massachusetts Virtual Academy, established in 2009 as the state’s first and only virtual school, will automatically receive one of those available certificates — if school officials choose to accept the offer.
The Greenfield School Committee will spend the next few months reviewing the law before deciding if it is in the district’s best interests to continue the virtual school, Chairman John Lunt told The Recorder last week.
One of the largest issues the committee will grapple with is if it can meet a condition that will require at least 5 percent of the school’s students to come from the host district — a clause included by lawmakers to ensure that local officials would have a vested interest in their school.
At the Greenfield school, the number of in-district students has been much lower — fluctuating between 2 and 3 percent over the past three years. Out of 472 students enrolled in the school Thursday, 15 are Greenfield residents — equating to 3.2 percent.
The law allows Greenfield to continue to operate with its current enrollment numbers until its three- to five-year certificate expires. At that point, the school must meet the 5 percent enrollment criterion to have a chance to have the certificate renewed.
School officials have said that it will be extremely difficult to reach the 5 percent mark. It would mean the school would have to decrease its overall size or increase its in-district enrollment by pulling Greenfield students from “brick-and-mortar” schools into the virtual school — two things that school officials said were never part of the school’s original intent.
Superintendent Susan Hollins has lauded the school as a haven for people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable or unwilling to attend brick-and-mortar schools. She has said that if the school does shut down, there will be a delay of at least one year to allow parents and students a chance to find a new school.
Intertwined with the School Committee’s upcoming discussions on the future of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy will be a contract negotiation 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.
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