High School Is Virtual, but the Caps and Gowns Are Real

New York Times

June 14, 2003

ARS, Pa., June 12, 2003 The school superintendent, Nicholas Trombetta, took the stage in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel here. The musicians struck up "Pomp and Circumstance." The parents raised their cameras.

It could have been any small town high school graduation. Except for one thing: Almost none of the 56 graduates, marching in procession in their royal blue caps and gowns, had ever met before.

It was the third graduation of the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School here, where the age of online learning and virtual classrooms has come to an old steel town. The graduates had emerged from cyberspace from behind their computers in living rooms, bedrooms, basements and kitchens all over the state to collect their diplomas, shake the hand of Dr. Trombetta, whom they had never seen before, and to meet one another in the fluorescent-lighted reality of the Sheraton ballroom.

Jenson West, whose family had made the 90-minute drive to the ceremony from Boswell, was euphoric. Regular school, as he and his fellow graduates referred to it, had not been kind to him. The football coach had called him fat, he said. His classmates had taunted him. But now, at graduation, he was chatting up one of the prettiest girls in the class, Chelsea Carothers, from Ohioville.

"She's really a super person," Jenson, a 17-year-old who could not stop smiling, said afterward. "We both came from the same kind of thing kids were mean, school was messed up."

In just two years, the number of cyberschools has doubled to 67 schools with nearly 16,000 students, in Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Ohio, Florida, Arizona and 11 other states, according to the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization that supports charter schools.

With many of their students saying they did not fit in at regular school or from rural areas with failing schools and few educational alternatives, some cyberschools have been praised by educators. But with the schools as diverse as the charter school movement itself, and difficult to monitor, just how good many of them are is still unclear, experts say.

"The high quality cyberschools connect with kids who have either been pushed out or who have opted to leave conventional schools," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "But it remains unclear whether the cyber curricula and sporadic contact with human beings leads to tangible learning gains for these kids."

And, Professor Fuller said, there have been instances in several states where cyberschools have collected tens of thousands of dollars from local school districts and delivered poor programs.

But in Midland, about 25 miles west of Mars, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School seems to be working well. The elementary and secondary students, whose numbers have grown to nearly 2,000 from 500, have performed well on state achievement tests.

Teachers closely monitor the students through phone calls and online communication, Dr. Trombetta said. At least one parent is required to be at home to supervise a child's work. The school supplies students with textbooks and new computers.

All students in the state are eligible, though Dr. Trombetta says disciplined, motivated students are the best candidates for online learning.

This year's school budget is $7.3 million and is financed by state and local education funds. A student's home school district must pay for the student to enroll, based on its own per-pupil expenditures. The payments range from $5,500 to $12,000 per student.

Housed in a former bank building on the main street, next to the V.F.W. post and across from Ernie's Pharmacy, the cyberschool has brought hope and energy to a town that is still fighting to recover from the early 1980's, when the steel industry collapsed and thousands of workers lost their jobs. The school's 140 full- and part-time jobs, including 80 certified teachers, makes it one of the biggest employers in town.

Just blocks from a closed steel mill, the school is viewed by many of Midland 3,300 residents as an emblem of the future.

Patience Katich, the president of the Cyber School Board, whose father worked in the steel mill, said: "We're not stuck in the box of being just an old steel community. We're moving on."

After the mill closed, thousands of families left in search of work elsewhere. With only a few dozen students remaining, Midland's Lincoln High School, for decades a football and basketball powerhouse, was forced to close in 1985. Rejected by nearby schools in their own state, the remaining high school students ended up attending school in neighboring East Liverpool, Ohio.

Worried that the students might eventually be turned away from East Liverpool, Dr. Trombetta, a steelworker's son intent on reviving Midland, and a group of townspeople decided to open a cyberschool.

As it turned out, most of the Midland high school students have chosen to continue commuting to the school in Ohio. The cyberstudents are from all over Pennsylvania, from Philadelphia to the Poconos to Pittsburgh.

Mary Crapis, a new instructional supervisor at the school, met one of her students, Jeffrey Wilkerson, for the first time this evening. "You can't judge these kids by what they look like," Ms. Crapis said. "All you know is their story."
Thirty-two graduates did not attend the ceremony because of scheduling conflicts and distance. Marc Stone, 17, and his sister Lisa, 18, who were both graduating, had driven four hours from Gettysburg for the ceremony. Marc underwent a kidney transplant when he was an infant. He still has health problems. Cyberschool allowed him to continue advancing he was already taking college courses even when he had to spend weeks in the hospital.

"I took my laptop with me," he explained.

His cyberschool offered several different types of learning and different curriculums. He took most of his classes by reading the textbooks the school supplied and logging onto his computer to do the homework and take tests.

Other students were in virtual classrooms, where they log onto, say, math class at 8 a.m. They talk to the teacher by using a headset and microphones. They clicked on icons that simulated actions like raising their hands, answering yes or no, or leaving the room.

For many of Marc's fellow graduates, cyberschool had been liberating. They could sit at their computers in their pajamas, if they wanted and focus on learning. None of their classmates, or their teachers, knew what they looked like.

It did not matter, said one graduate, Jana Poling, whether you had a boyfriend or the right brand of jeans or whether, as in Jana's case, your father happened to be the pastor in town. As long as you logged on, turned in the work on time, and stayed in close touch with your teacher by telephone and computer school went well.

"When are you ever going to get in trouble in cyberschool?" Jenson said, explaining that no one in cyberspace ever gets sent to the principal's office.

Aaron Doctor was wearing blue nail polish, thick pancake makeup, penciled-on black eyebrows that matched his dyed black hair.

"I had a horrible time in high school," said Aaron, referring to his hometown school, in Fayette City. In cyberspace, he said, he can be himself. "It's a lot more comfortable than the regular world. I can doll it up and draw on my eyebrows."


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