A New Way To Learn

Online charter schools offer an option for kids who might have trouble in traditional classrooms

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 17, 2002

10 Min Read

Nine-year-old Noel Schaefer is already focused on his career goal: He wants to design medical applications using robotics. His mom, Bonnie, calls him a walking encyclopedia on astrophysics, biology, and medicine. But with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, Noel qualifies for special-needs education. Like many with Asperger's, Noel is very bright but struggled mightily in a public-school classroom.

One symptom of Asperger's is an inability to pick up on social cues the way most of us do intuitively, making it hard to get along with others. "He'd have meltdowns," Schaefer says. "It was one behavior problem after another. I could see I was losing my son."

After looking into other options, Schaefer, a software consultant, and her husband, Paul, enrolled Noel in an online charter school, a new model of education in which K-12 classes are offered online. It's different than homeschooling, in which the parents provide the materials and the curriculum. In addition to its curriculum, the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School provides the Schaefers with several boxes of books and supplies, a computer and printer, and support from Noel's special-education and homeroom teachers.

Charter schools are a type of public school that receive special permission from the local school district to operate under different guidelines and management than other public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports there are more than 2,400 such schools in 37 states. Charter schools typically have a specific mission, whether based on subject matter, gifted programs, or a proposal by a group of parents who want to secede from the regular public schools that wins the district's approval. The schools are funded by the same source as all public schools--taxes.

Noel Schaefer is bright, but because he has Asperger's Syndrome, he struggled in a regular classroom. His mother, Bonnie, helps him with his education at an online charter school. "I like school better now," he says.

By extension, online charter schools deliver their curriculum over the Internet. But students do more than stare at a computer screen. They spend much of the day on project work and interactive learning with their parents, who serve as in-home instructors (see story, below). Successful online education depends on the same fundamentals associated with the best corporate E-learning efforts: strong content, an E-learning platform, and an IT infrastructure with sufficient bandwidth. Online learning has become common at the graduate-school level, but until recently, it hasn't been tried with elementary or high school students. Like any new approach to a traditional field, this one raises questions across several disciplines, including education, finance, business, socialization, and politics.

Online charter schools represent an education model so new that even education experts and E-learning vendors don't have solid statistics on the field. There's confusion about whether the schools fall under the same laws that regulate traditional charter schools. Many wonder, can they succeed at all?

Pennsylvania is an innovative state when it comes to education, and charter school administrators credit former Gov. Tom Ridge (now head of the Office of Homeland Security) for his role in promoting learning technology. Seven online charter schools operate there. Not all start with a grand vision; some are born out of necessity or, in one case, embarrassment.

Nick Trombetta is superintendent of schools for the Midland Borough School District in western Pennsylvania. When the Steel Belt turned to rust, the Crucible steel mill in Midland closed abruptly in 1982 after 60 years. People left the area, school enrollment plummeted, and local revenue, which was dependent on property taxes, fell by 40%. Eventually, the borough could no longer support a high school and began looking for another school to take its 100 students. To Trombetta's disappointment, and to the embarrassment of the state, none came forward until a district in neighboring Ohio came to the rescue.

When the story hit the media in 1997, it caught the attention of then-Gov. Ridge, who suggested opening an online charter school. At the time, Trombetta, who has been in education since 1976, didn't even know what that was, but he liked the concept. He applied for a grant and put together a team to come up with a plan. They worked for two years, creating a small online school for 25 to 50 students that opened in September 2000. Then they waited.

When word got out, Trombetta was amazed that hundreds of parents wanted to enroll their kids. Only 10 were from Midland, so he extended enrollment to surrounding districts. This year, 1,200 students are enrolled in the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. The other 90 Midland high-schoolers still commute to Ohio for classes.

All online charter schools are startups--and as such, all face the problems typical to new companies. Trombetta concedes there were some big mistakes. "We have to be very focused on customer service," he says, in this case, to parents and students. The school's first hardware vendor, which Trombetta would rather not name, promised 24-by-7 support, but that promise was quickly broken. "Many of our parents have limited experience with technology," he says. "When PCs break, people need technical support people at the other end of the line."

Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School uses hardware from Gateway Inc. and NCS Pearson Inc. Its E-learning platform comes from Centra Software Inc., and during the next couple of years, Trombetta plans to add technology from E-learning vendor Blackboard Inc. The curriculum comes from accredited universities and private companies and is offered in a mix of real-time and asynchronous learning.

This new model of education hasn't been without controversy. Trombetta's school, and all online charter schools, feel tainted by what happened with such one highly publicized school in Pennsylvania, the Einstein Academy. "It was an accident waiting to happen," Trombetta says. That's putting it mildly. Since it opened in September, the Einstein saga has had the makings of an Aaron Spelling miniseries.

From early on, there were signs of trouble. The founder, entrepreneur Mimi Rothschild, gave the contract to manage the school and curriculum to her husband Howard Mandel's for-profit company, Tutorbots. The couple also made a classic startup error: The school was grossly undercapitalized. In Pennsylvania, as in most of the country, funds for public schooling follow the child; that is, it doesn't matter where the school is based, the home district of each child is expected to pony up funds to the school. But a number of Pennsylvania districts argue that online charter schools aren't true charter schools and therefore are ineligible for funding. So they withheld funds, leaving the school unable to pay its bills.

When money ran low, testimony in at least one lawsuit alleges, Rothschild and Tutorbots were paid while teachers, who take part in some online instruction, correspond with parents and students, and mark homework and tests, continued working without pay. IT vendors weren't as willing to wait. At one point, the academy's Internet service provider, Digital Freedom, pulled the plug, leaving many students with no way to connect to the school. At least 140 of the state's 501 school districts have filed suit against the school and its founder. Rothschild was finally sacked and new management brought in. But the damage was done: A third of the school's 3,000 students have left, and at least 19 lawsuits are pending.

Einstein Academy's story resonates with anyone who's been involved with a doomed startup. "They were people who were never involved with education before. They had no startup money, no experience, and they made promises they couldn't keep," Trombetta says. "It's the Love Canal of schools." Einstein Academy also grew too fast. While most online charter schools enroll 50 to 500 students in their first year, Einstein took 3,000.

The Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School is treading much more carefully. While it plans to expand through grade 12, that won't happen until 2004-05, principal Mike Maslayak says. This year, the school has enrolled 643 children in grades K-2.

The school's board bought its curriculum from K12 Inc. in McLean, Va., former Secretary of Education William Bennett's for-profit E-learning company, which also provides management services. All curriculum is delivered over the Web via standard Internet Explorer or Netscape browsers. Flash, Real Audio, and Windows Media handle streaming media. It's all done on thin clients; applications remain on Sun Microsystems servers in McLean. Oracle databases handle student data.

Most of this first year has been spent adapting to the new educational and business model. It's more intensive than the traditional model, says Maslayak, who's been a teacher and administrator for nearly 30 years. "It's very customer service-driven," he says. "You have to give up a certain amount of control. It's the parents who are the principal instructors."

The setting is probably best for students at high risk of failing in a traditional classroom--those who are accelerated learners, have medical problems that keep them out of school a lot, or have particular learning needs. Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School's students include those whose parents are in the military and based in Pennsylvania but travel, and children of farm families who need to work as well as study.

Politically, the school faces the same problem as Einstein Academy and others in the state: funding. It costs home districts about $7,100 per student per year, a KPMG audit finds, putting it in the high-middle range among the state's seven online charter schools and a bit below the state's average cost of $8,000 per pupil for noncharter public schools. Maslayak says the school expects to reduce costs as it moves beyond the startup phase. But will lower costs make it more palatable to local officials? It's hard to say. Every dollar going to an online charter school is a dollar the school district doesn't control.

The Pennsylvania School Board maintains that online charter schools shouldn't even be considered public schools. With no existing business model, "there was never any consideration to how online might be different from traditional charter schools," says Timothy Allwein, assistant executive director for government and member relations. "We're working with the legislature to get a separate policy. I don't think there will be any move to get rid of them."

Where are online schools headed? E-learning expert and sociologist Elliott Masie, who heads the Masie Center, an E-learning think tank, says the technology is in place to help the schools succeed--sort of. He'd like to see digital subscriber line or cable modems become ubiquitous. "We also need an eyeball on the learner at all times; biometrics like a fingerprint scan or eyeball scan" to make sure no one's cheating on tests, he says.

Like any new business model, this one will take time to evolve. It requires building strategic partnerships among E-learning experts and technology vendors, educators and administrators, politicians and community leaders, and parents like Bonnie and Paul Schaefer, whose children stand to receive the greatest benefit from online charter schools. "I like school a lot better now," Noel says. "It's a lot better without all the people around. I get to do things that are interesting to me." That's the kind of positive attitude every parent wants to hear.

Photo byJim Judkus

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