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Virtual School

Pressure on to keep virtual school

GREENFIELD — Local legislators said Monday that Greenfield could operate a state-run virtual school for one year — a temporary fix that would ensure that 470 students across the state would have a cyber school to attend next fall.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said it is unlikely that they will be able to change a virtual school law that is preventing Greenfield from operating its locally run Massachusetts Virtual Academy after June 30.

But they said Monday there’s an option for a temporary solution. If the Greenfield School Committee reconsidered its vote of last month and decided to start a new state-run cyber school this fall, it could choose to close that school after the 2013-2014 school year, said the legislators.

And they said that the March 25 deadline imposed on Greenfield to submit a state application could be extended to allow some more time for the district to weigh its options.

Forced by law to transition its three-year-old Massachusetts Virtual Academy into a state-run school, the School Committee decided on Feb. 28 to not pursue this option — a vote that means there won’t be a virtual school in Greenfield after June 30.

The law states that only Greenfield could apply to start a state-run virtual school next fall — language that caused a predicament once the district said it wasn’t interested. The school’s 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield, have no clear option of where to attend an online public school this fall.

The School Committee’s decision set off a wave of response across the state from the students’ families — who said that their children cannot return to brick-and-mortar public schools. Families sent letters and emails and started online petitions, hoping to persuade the School Committee, legislators or state officials to come up with some sort of solution.

One hope that emerged from a subcommittee meeting in Greenfield last Thursday was that there would be some way for legislators to amend the law and allow Greenfield a one-year period to slowly close its virtual innovation school.

Such a clause once existed in an early version of the virtual school bill — it would have allowed Greenfield to keep its innovation school through next year, avoiding the quandary that currently exists — but it was taken out along the way before it became law.

But Mark and Rosenberg said that it would be impossible to amend the law with the limited time allowed by this situation.

The pair has now gotten involved, to a degree. They said they met last Friday with Mayor William Martin and then separately with Superintendent Susan Hollins to discuss the district’s options going forward.

Hollins, who said she appreciated the legislators’ time and thoughts, said that Rosenberg initiated Friday’s impromptu meeting, and that Chairman John Lunt was also present for the meeting. Neither Martin nor Lunt could be reached Monday.

If Greenfield wanted, it could still submit an application and operate a state-run virtual school next fall, and then close that school after one year, said the legislators. This would give Massachusetts Virtual Academy students a place to attend school in the one-year gap until new virtual schools across the state can be created.

“Our job as local legislators is to seek to support the school district once they’ve made their decision,” said Rosenberg.

“We are impressing upon them, clearly, that there are 500 children that are hanging in limbo — the same children that they argued over the last three to four years that they wanted to serve and that we went to bat for them with the department so that they could serve,” he said.

JC Considine, spokesman for the department of elementary and secondary education, acknowledged that once it was awarded a three- to five-year virtual school certificate, the School Committee could “turn in” that certificate at any point to close the school.

Reversal

There has been no indication that the School Committee plans to reverse its decision.

Since the vote, Lunt, the committee chairman, has repeatedly argued 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 not a decision the committee took lightly, he said, but one that was forced by the law.

Committee members and school administrators have also said they had less than six weeks to submit an application to the state — a deadline that some felt would be difficult to meet.

Hollins, who said Monday she respects the committee’s decision, advised the committee at the February meeting to take more time to weigh the pros and cons.

Considine said it is possible to extend the deadline, but time is limited on the state’s end. As of Monday, no one has asked the state to extend the deadline, he said.

“The Department would need sufficient time to do its due diligence and thoroughly review any application in preparation for a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting,” said Considine, adding that the state board does not typically meet during July or August.

Another suggestion that came out of Thursday’s subcommittee meeting was for parents to send their students to the K12 International Academy — a private virtual school run by K12, the for-profit curriculum company that Greenfield has contracted with for the past three years.

The school costs between $5,000 and $7,000, per year. The state won’t be able to help pay the bills, said Considine.

“We have neither the funds nor authorization to pay for a student’s enrollment in a private school,” he said.

Parents continue their fight to save school

Although they acknowledge the limitations presented by the virtual school law, families of Massachusetts Virtual Academy students are still hoping that something can be done to keep a cyber school in Greenfield running next fall.

A Change.org petition started last week, “Legislators and Greenfield Public School District Officials: Save MAVA at Greenfield,” now has over 600 online signatures.

A second Change.org petition has been started, appealing to the governor: “Deval Patrick- Governor of Massachusettes (sic): Delay Chapter 379 of the Commonwealth Virtual School Act for 1 more year.”

Krysten Callina, a mother from Somerset, said that families have started two letter-writing campaigns. One series of letters will ask legislators, local and state officials to work together to find a solution. The other letters will be directed at Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education, to ask him to extend Greenfield’s deadline to submit an application.

And Callina said a video entitled “What Will Happen” — which can be viewed online at https://www.smore.com/dggp — combines video and still images to show what parents believe will happen if the school closes this summer.

“We feel it’s easy to dismiss the hardship for these kids if (local and state officials) don’t see their faces,” said Rebecca Deans-Rowe — a Southborough mother who started the first petition and is an administrator of a closed Facebook group for Massachusetts Virtual Academy parents

“There’s an assumption that the kids can go back into brick-and-mortar schools and be fine, but that’s not true,” she said. “We’re just trying to make that point clear.”

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

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