Trinity, Washington starting online academy

December 17, 2012
Paul Kasunich

The Grable Foundation has awarded Trinity, Washington and Western Beaver school districts a $176,000 grant to support a joint district partnership called Collaborative Online Academy.

COA is the school districts’ way of fighting back against the growing number of cyber charter schools vying to attract students from their schools.

Since computer-based charter schools started, public schools have had to cope with students leaving their districts and the costs associated with those desertions.

COA’s online curriculum is designed to provide students in the three districts an opportunity for diverse learning options in a virtual classroom tailored to meet their individual needs.

The districts say the goal of the tri-district partnership is to deliver a world-class educational experience at a significantly lower cost than traditional cyberschools by sharing the services of the teachers and program coordinators. Cyberschools cost school districts thousands of dollars annually.

Trinity Superintendent Dr. Paul Kasunich said Monday that Trinity, Washington and Western Beaver pay about $8,500 for each regular education student and $20,000 for learning support students to take classes through cyber charter schools across the state.

“We understand we’re competing for students, contrary to the way education has typically been, so we’re offering a cyber-based program that’s far superior to what’s out there,” said Kasunich. “It’s really a collaborative effort. The fact that we were able to get that grant really speaks to the innovative nature of what we’re trying to accomplish, and this idea that we’re going to cross district lines to provide programming is very unique.”

COA teachers are cyber-trained teachers from the three school districts, whose mission is to ensure students maintain a connection to their respective district’s curriculum, instruction and extracurricular opportunities. Students participating in COA will earn diplomas from their home school district.

Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Roberta DiLorenzo said the students’ connection to and interaction with district teachers is important because it offers a social and emotional component that cyber charter schools lack.

“Even if they’re doing cyber at home, they’re still doing it with our teachers,” said DiLorenzo.

She also noted that sometimes when a student leaves cyberschool to return to the district, there is a gap in learning. But because COA uses the district’s own curriculum, there is no gap.

“It offers a seamless transition back to the traditional school if students decide to come back.”

Currently, 131 students from Trinity, Washington and Western Beaver are participating in COA, and 36 teachers have been trained to teach the classes which began at the start of the school year.

Among the approximately 145 course offerings available for grades 7 through 12 are core courses in math, science, social studies and language arts, Advanced Placement and honors classes, electives, languages including Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, credit advancement and credit recovery. Classes for students in kindergarten through fourth grade will be available after January, DiLorenzo said.

Students can participate in COA full time at home or full time at school, or they can mix traditional classroom instruction with online instruction.

Kasunich said the partnership enables the school districts to tap into courses they do not offer and pointed to Trinity’s Mandarin Chinese class as an example.

“We hired a full-time Mandarin Chinese teacher this year. That’s a niche program we can offer to someone in Washington or Beaver who can take it through this consortium, without the other districts duplicating the same efforts,” said Kasunich. “I think it’s exciting.”

DiLorenzo agrees COA is a groundbreaking and innovative step for the school districts.

“We see public school district partnerships as a necessity. I think this type of plan, these type of collaborations, allow districts to work together for the betterment of all of us ... it’s good for the students, staff and communities,” said DiLorenzo. “It’s the 21st century model of education that we’re embracing.”

Kasunich and DiLorenzo encouraged students interested in participating in COA to contact their home school district. They also would like more school districts to join their consortium in order to build a bigger network and offer more courses.

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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