- Associated Press - Saturday, November 12, 2016

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - It’s not a typical classroom.

Students work on laptops at tables set up in an open area at the junction of two main hallways at Erie’s Central Career and Technical School.

Three teachers stationed at desks beside and behind them are available for help when the students need it. Most of the time, teachers monitor other students working online at home.



The makeshift classroom is home base for the Erie School District’s cyber school, created in 2012. High school students work mainly online at home but come to the class if they need one-on-one help from teachers. Middle school students new to the cyber program this school year are required to go to class at least weekly.

The Erie Public Schools Online Campus, as the cyber school is formally known, caters to students who don’t thrive in traditional classrooms. School officials hope that it will also cater to Erie students enrolled in outside cyber charter schools.

More than 440 students who live within Erie School District boundaries are enrolled this fall in cyber charter schools based outside the district, including Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. The district is required by law to pay their tuition.

Approximate cost to the Erie School District in 2016-17: $3.8 million, or about $9,114 per student, $16,614 for each special education student.

The district pays much less per pupil enrolled in its own cyber program, about $1,670 for each of the 135 students enrolled, for computers, internet access, classes and teacher salaries and benefits, said Neal Brokman, coordinator of alternative programming for the Erie School District and principal of the district cyber school.

“I’d rather that students that want cyber school choose ours,” Brokman said. “Because, number one, I think it’s a better product, and because it keeps kids in the district as part of their home school.”

The program offers a range of courses, even Advanced Placement courses, and the opportunity to work with teachers in person.

“Kids get the support they need,” Brokman said. “Leave most kids home with a computer and they won’t get their work done.”

Students choose to learn online for a variety of reasons, Brokman said. The application for Erie’s cyber school asks students why they prefer it.

“The answers vary student by student, but there are two main responses,” Brokman said, “from students who may be a little more introverted or learn better on their own and, second, from students who maybe made some bad decisions in the past and feel this is the best way to graduate on time.”

Diamond Alligood, 17, said she chose Erie’s cyber school to escape bullying.

“I had problems in school. I had trouble with students picking on me. It was just stupid things,” said Diamond, who is in her second year in Erie Public Schools Online Campus and plans to graduate in spring. She previously attended East High School.

“I didn’t like that school,” she said.

DeAndre Murdock, 16, looks forward to doing his schoolwork on his own schedule. He attended traditional classes at Central Tech before starting Erie cyber school last week.

“You get detention full-time there if you’re late in the morning,” he said.

Erie cyber students aren’t required to take classes at certain times.

“They can work any time twenty-four/seven as long as they do what the expectations are,” Brokman said. “If they want to sleep in, that’s fine, but then they might need to dedicate the time from ten to one to classes.”

“Kids here work at their own pace,” teacher Tom Vogt said. Vogt is certified to teach science, social studies and English, and teaches Erie cyber courses in all of those disciplines. Courtney Wurst teaches English in the cyber school. Mike Volk teaches math. Bob Merski teaches special education.

“We get to be cheerleaders for the kids, assuring them they can do this, they can take the test again, they can work at it a little longer,” Vogt said. “We contact so many students every day to see how they’re doing, what they’re doing or why they haven’t been working lately. The best part is getting to work one-on-one with kids. This job is the best thing that’s ever happened to me professionally.”

The school isn’t a diploma mill, school district spokeswoman Daria Devlin said.

“We care about kids’ success. This is not a mill where we get them in and push them through. That sets us apart,” she said.

Brokman aims to stop the 3 percent loss of Erie students to cyber charter schools each school year and double Erie cyber school enrollment, to 250 students - by getting students back from cyber charter schools. Getting students back from brick-and-mortar charter schools, where they have friends and teachers that they see every day, will be more difficult.

“Cyber schools seem to offer more low-hanging fruit. Efforts to bring students back from brick-and-mortar charters are farther down the line,” Devlin said.

About 2,000 Erie students attend cyber charter or brick-and-mortar charter schools outside the school district this school year, for a total estimated 2016-17 tuition cost of $23.4 million.

Brokman plans to survey Erie students to ask why they chose outside cyber charter schools and what the Erie School District can do to get them back.

It’s not a minor goal. The Erie School District this year got a $3.3 million increase in state basic education funding and $4 million in emergency funding and is on the state’s financial watch list. The district projects a 2017-18 deficit as high as $10 million and a $60 million deficit in five to 10 years, largely due to stagnant revenues and spiraling health care, employee retirement costs - and charter school tuition costs. At stake could be art and music programs, full-day kindergarten, school libraries, sports and extracurricular activities and the closure of all four district high schools.

“Meanwhile, PA Cyber has a billboard on 26th Street and when there are school closings, you see it scrolling on the bottom of the TV screen,” Brokman said. “It has an advertising budget of a half-million dollars.”

The financially troubled Erie School District does not have an advertising budget, and that makes it harder to compete with cyber charter schools, Devlin said.

“We can’t spend taxpayer dollars on advertising. It has to be word of mouth and whatever free marketing we can do,” she said.

The district’s early cyber school efforts were aimed at solidifying its academic and extracurricular program, Brokman said. In addition to live interaction with teachers, Erie cyber students can participate in all school district activities and return to their home schools, if they like, to graduate.

“We wanted to make sure our product is good before we try to sell it,” Brokman said.

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Online:

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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