When Lackawanna Trail School District partnered with Virtual Learning Network Partners earlier this year, the hope was to give students who prefer online learning a better quality platform while potentially easing the burden of funding cyber education.
The state mandates districts to foot the bill for students who choose cyber education over traditional brick and mortar schools.
While cyber costs for the 2018-19 school year haven’t been finalized yet, Trail business manager Keith Glynn said the district has spent $879,384 for approximately 40 students so far.
Now, the district administration needs to convince families using third party platforms to make the switch.
Last Thursday, Trail administrators met with district families in the high school library to pitch the new Lackawanna Trail Cyber Academy.
“We are excited to offer this opportunity to your children,” Principal of School Management Rebekah King said. “We do realize that the brick and mortar is not for everyone. However, as a district, we really want to provide the students in our home district with the very best cyber school experience that they can have.”
The district has always offered a cyber program, explained high school principal Dr. Mark Murphy, but being primarily reading based, the Northeast Educational Intermediate Unit 19’s Northeast Online Learning Academy wasn’t fitting the needs of students.
“There wasn’t a lot of interaction,” he said. “There was no synchronous learning.”
The administration spent months researching platforms and became impressed with VLN.
While doing post-secondary transition work with students, Murphy said the district found that local employers generally prefer traditional high school diplomas.
Graduates of the cyber academy receive a Lackawanna Trail diploma just like students in the brick and mortar.
Cyber students can also take Advanced Placement courses and earn dual enrollment credits with local colleges and universities.
Unlike with NOLA, students who meet certain grade and attendance requirements can receive a $500 internet subsidy twice a year, provided that they return equipment in good condition.
Under certain circumstances, students are allowed to create blended schedules, and there are no limits on participating in Trail’s extracurriculars and events.
“You are a Lackawanna Trail student,” King said. “We want you to feel like you are at home, like you are in your home district, because you are.”
Jamie Ross, manager of client services for VLN, was also present on Thursday to show families how the platform works.
Each day, students log on for a live homeroom session with a teacher, with attendance recorded.
“We want to make sure you’re engaged on a daily basis in the program,” Ross said.
While teachers with VLN aren’t from Lackawanna Trail, she assured that they are certified with the state and based closely together, allowing for collaboration.
Besides helping students develop an online learning schedule, the homeroom teacher reviews a progress report for their individualized learning plans each week and addresses any issues.
Curriculum is divided into weekly segments called modules that offer flexibility for students, who are always required to show their work.
“We want to make sure that you’re truly learning the content,” Ross said.
A real time gradebook, which includes audio feedback from teachers, also keeps students on track and informed of their progress.
The homepage includes a calendar synchronized with Lackawanna Trail that informs students of work deadlines and messages such as homeroom cancellations on snow days.
Outside of scheduled appointments with teachers, students can utilize open office hours twice a day and fill out a form with the ‘get help from a teacher’ button 24/7.
The ‘cyber school in a box’ equipment bundle provides students with a laptop, printer/scanner, earbuds and additional hardware/
software. Tech support is available every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Students receive textbooks and a secure email address, plus VLN makes accommodations for special education students in conjunction with the district.
Once families register with Lackawanna Trail, Ross said VLN reviews student transcripts to determine which of its three curriculum tracks is the best fit.
Jen Measley, who has children enrolled in a third party cyber program, attended the meet and greet and may consider making the switch.
“It did exceed our expectations in the care that they put into it,” she said. “We’re definitely going to go home and think about and really decide what’s best for our students, and we would really like to talk a little bit more with the administration.”
In the 2018-19 school year, Lackawanna Trail spent $14,265 per cyber student, with special education cyber students each costing $35,292, according to Glynn.
VLN charges $4,500 per student regardless of special education, plus a one-time yearly fee of $9,375 for program setup, tech support, marketing and program management.
“This fee is guaranteed and if we don’t save at least that much, we will get it returned to us,” Glynn said. “We do not have estimated savings yet. It will depend on the enrollment.”