Bricks, or clicks? Should students attend the traditional "brick and mortar" campus, or an online, virtual campus?
Five years ago, Tamaqua Area School administrators were attending national education technology conferences to learn how to build an online program for the district's students.
Flash forward to 2013, and the district's staff members are at those national conferences, giving presentations on how they've done it.
"We're now getting recognition not only statewide but beyond," said Superintendent Carol Makuta, during a school board meeting Wednesday. "We're very proud of their work."
During the meeting, Director of Technology Ken Dunkelberger, along with teachers Mrs. Marietta Kotch and Mrs. Melissa Day, briefed the board on steps the district has taken to build a successful online program. Presently, all the district's high school level core courses are available on line, and five of this year's graduating seniors were full-time "virtual campus" students.
Why offer courses online? Obviously, when students have options for choosing when to take a class, they are free to adjust their schedules as needed. They can take a course online to recover a course they've previously failed, or take an "enrichment" course that otherwise would conflict with their regular class schedule.
But Tamaqua, and other school districts statewide, have financial motives as well.
According to a 2010 report by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the funding structure the state has for cyber schools is not properly structured and does not include sufficient accountability. Despite dramatically different cost structures, cyber charter schools are funded in the same manner as "brick and mortar" charter schools, with the Commonwealth providing up to 30 percent of tuition and students' home districts paying the remainder.
Districts' payments are based on what they spend to educate their students, which often is significantly more than it costs to educate the students in a cyber charter school. Nevertheless, cyber charters receive amounts as high as brick and mortar charters receive. This funding structure raises concerns that these schools are benefiting from payments that are higher than what they spend, with insufficient accountability for the excess, according to the PSEA report.
In the Tamaqua School District, approximately 60 students are attending cyber schools which are not associated with the district. Roughly, the district spends $10,000 per student and so must make payments to the cyber schools of about $600,000 per year.
Would the district like to recoup that money? Of course, and will reach out to those students hoping to attract them back to their "home based" cyber school. There would be significant advantages to the return, with the greatest being personal attention from Tamaqua staff and teachers.
"A student that is considering using our online program would first attend an intake meeting," Day explained. "We review the transcripts and go through a two-week orientation."
Students have the benefit of an "open campus" which means that if needed, they can come by the "brick and mortar" school for a personal meeting with the course teacher. The teachers also have office hours and students can "talk" on line with teachers, Kotch said.
In other action the board:
Reappointed Dan Schoener to serve as board treasurer and reappointed Bob Betz to serve as board secretary.
Accepted the retirement of Robert Dasey, custodian, effective June 20, 2013.
Approved Joseph Dietz, Lehighton, as assistant varsity boys basketball coach; Aaron Mantz, Coaldale, as junior varsity boys basketball coach; and Michael Murphy, 9th grade basketball coach.