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Cyber charters boom as York County schools try to compete

Ethan Moore, 14, who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, looks up an answer in his Earth Science book during his Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School class at his home in Wrightsville, Wednesday, April 6, 2016. Moore has done well in his cyber classes since being pulled from public school because the standardized testing was overwhelming for him. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Cyber charter enrollment is skyrocketing as schools are now on the cusp of sending students back this fall, despite efforts at robust online options from local districts.

In fact, many cyber schools are reaching capacity, said Jessica Hickernell, director of public affairs and policy for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, when reached Friday, Aug. 7.

More:More Pa. parents eyeing cyber charters amid COVID-19

Though the coalition doesn't collect enrollment data, regular updates from 11 member schools show a jump of 1,500 students from March to April, she said in an email.

Brian Hayden, CEO of Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School — the largest one in the state according to the most recent data — said Friday that his school has almost reached its 11,677-student capacity.

And 423 of those are from York County.

To put those numbers in perspective, with rolling enrollments, the school typically starts each year with about 9,500 and doesn't hit 11,000 until February or March, he said.

Online education has long taken a back seat to in-person instruction at public school districts, but now it’s front and center, with COVID-19 forcing schools to develop online options.

With a niche platform that many districts have either developed or reinvented in just a few months, educators are finding themselves in the cyber game — one that’s been dominated by cyber charters for years.

That's been more clear than ever for Southern York County School District, which on Thursday reported that more than 600 students were already slated to enroll in its digital academy.

The district reported just 35 enrolled in the academy as of Aug. 15 last year, according to a board agenda.

"This number fluctuates by the hour," said Assistant Superintendent Richard Bryson, noting that the majority of students enrolled are from the district's elementary schools, with about 15% of enrollees coming from the high school.

The heat is on for districts to devise platforms that both draw in students who have chosen outside cybers for years  while not alienating in-person students who might be thinking of temporarily going the cyber route.

To account for this, some districts have built programs that closely mirror existing cyber education, with independent asynchronous-style learning and outside curriculum while still providing an additional online option for other district students.

Other districts are opting for an in-house program that touts its use of the districts' own curriculum.

"If there’s one thing we know we can do at Northeastern … we can teach," said that Assistant Superintendent Randi Payne, noting that Northeastern's academic performance outweighed every outside charter and that  no education dollars are spent on marketing.

The biggest issue for parents this past spring, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, was the rigor of the online learning districts provided — and administrators are aiming to change that this fall.

Southern has chosen to go for an outside curriculum, with Bryson noting,"a platform like this might take a decade to create."

If that's the case, districts developing their own platforms would need a lot more than a few months to prepare them.

PA Cyber's Hayden said his school is adding a new curriculum into the mix this year, and it took 18 months of review, including an entire school year — including parent focus groups, employee input and vendor visits — to complete.

Other than safety, Hayden said of those inquiring about his school's programs, the biggest  fear is  that the quality of education at their districts will be subpar, despite reassurances from public administrators that what will be offered will be better than what students got last spring.

The upfront costs of creating a robust enough platform to compete are among the highest of school reopening costs, with about $200,000 per year for Southern's program and about $225,000 for York Suburban's.

Yet officials say it will be worth the investment to not only retain but to bring back students who had chosen cyber charters in the past.

Charter tuition has been one of the hottest topics for reform among district officials, as it's a mandated cost that increases for districts each year.

York Suburban's tuition for 2020-21 will be about $15,000 for general education students and about $31,000 for special education students.

This strategy of drawing students back to the district seems to be promising, according to York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams, who on Aug. 3 said several families are already interested in coming back.

Assistant Superintendent Scott Krauser said the long-term goal is to bring all of its students back, but that's not realistic right now.

"At this point, we don’t have a robust enough program to compete with some of the cyber programs," he said.