Feature                                                  Pages 24-27


Competing with Cyber


A Pennsylvania district’s steps and missteps while building online course delivery to regain its own students


For most of the last decade, the North Hills School District experienced a 23 percent annual increase in the number of our students enrolling in cyber charter schools run by other organizations in our state.

Jeff Taylor
Jeffrey Taylor

By 2009-10, the tide turned in our suburban district, located just outside Pittsburgh, Pa. The outflow of students dropped to negligible levels due to the establishment of the Online Academy @ North Hills, a district-created and -operated cyber school. Now, three years later, our school district expects to record a 9 percent decrease in cyber-charter school enrollment by the end of the school year.

By establishing our own cyber program, our school district now offers students the online learning experience they want. And, as a result, we realized a cost savings.

Of North Hills’s 4,238 students, 30 students attend our cyber program. Sixty students living in the North Hills district are enrolled in a cyber charter school in 2012-13.

Homegrown Entity
In today’s educational landscape, many school districts are interested in starting and operating their own cyber school program, but they may be unsure where to begin. Unfortunately, creating a district-operated cyber school is not an easy process. After living through the birthing of one over the past five years, I have learned a great deal from our successes and our mistakes.

To help other districts down the path of online learning, I am candidly sharing 10 steps for building a cyber program to deliver academic courses, based on our experiences.

Step 1: Identify area(s) of need. First and foremost, districts must know their needs. Are you looking to create an online alternative education program? Offer a summer credit-recovery program? Provide additional course electives? Or are you intent on luring students back from cyber charter schools?

When we began, we wanted to address everything all at once, which was our first mistake. I suggest prioritizing your areas of need and really focusing on one area at a time.

Step 2: Start small. At first, we tried to develop our online courses from scratch and to transition to an online alternative school/cyber school for grades 9 to 12 all in one year. Although a worthy goal, it proved to be problematic for teachers and administrators. If I had to do it all over again, I would have spent an entire year creating the courses and providing comprehensive professional development to teachers in how to both develop and teach online courses based on research and best practices.

Because we rushed into the process, several teachers were frustrated, and they struggled to understand the expectations.

Step 3: Involve your teachers’ union from the beginning. If we would have spent more time working with the teachers’ union from the beginning, we could have overcome many unexpected hurdles. These included establishing consistent online teaching and online course development standards, compensation agreements, and guidelines and procedures.

Fortunately, once our teachers’ union fully understood our online program’s long-term goals and how the union leadership played an integral part in the program, it was extremely supportive of the program. Without the union’s support and flexibility, our cyber school never would have been able to evolve into the high-quality program that it is today.

Step 4: Create a multiyear implementation plan. In retrospect, I believe we “put the cart before the horse” in that we did not begin our first year with a clearly defined multiyear implementation plan. About halfway through our first year, we realized our mistakes could have been prevented with a clearly articulated multiyear plan.

Working collaboratively with our teachers’ union, we created a detailed multiyear plan that included (1) online course development standards; (2) online teaching practices and procedures; (3) grade-level implementation target dates; and (4) a robust professional development cohort program for teachers and administrators. Creating a multiyear implementation plan allows a lot of important questions to be answered.

Step 5: Decide on an outsourced or in-house online program. When we began our program, we were unable to find an online learning provider whose program we could easily customize to mirror our curriculum. Therefore, we decided on an in-house program based on a belief in the mantra “our students, our teachers, our curriculum.”

We were fortunate in that we had a number of administrators who were well-versed in teaching and developing online courses. Without that in-house experience and skill set, a school district might consider a turnkey outsourcing of the online program. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options.

The advantages of outsourced online programs include a faster start-up time and greater cost effectiveness in the short term. The disadvantages of an outsourced online program are that you have less control over the curriculum delivery and you may get more pushback from the teachers’ union. Additionally, it may not be cost-effective over the long term.

The advantages of starting an in-house program relate to teacher buy-in and establishing your own district as a leader in online learning. In our case, this persuaded parents to choose North Hills over a cyber charter school. Additionally, you have a lot more control over the curriculum delivery in an in-house program.

The disadvantages are that it is extremely time-consuming to develop an in-house online program if you want to do it with fidelity, and there is a significant need to provide high-quality professional development to teachers.

Step 6: Providing high-quality training. One of the biggest mistakes we made when we began our online program was that we did not provide our teachers with sufficient training. It was lacking in quality and quantity. Subsequently, we developed a robust cohort professional development program that was research-based and included best practices for online teaching and learning.

Step 7: Create online program standards of success. Another mistake we made in the beginning was our failure to establish any program standards. A district-operated cyber school should develop standards for (1) online course development, (2) teaching practices and expectations, and (3) student practices and expectations.

Based on the standards we eventually created, I would recommend having a committee of teachers and administrators create a procedures manual.

Step 8: Develop and continually refine procedures. I know from experience that the absence of specific procedures can lead to confusion and frustration for everyone involved in a district’s online learning program. Sets of well-planned procedures manuals for students, parents, teachers and administrators that are reviewed and updated annually can alleviate a lot of problems.

The content of a procedures manual will vary depending on the target audience. However, I suggest that consistent communication protocols be included in any set of procedures. These protocols should cover communication between (1) student and student, (2) student and teacher, (3) teacher and parent, and (4) student and counselor. Protocols are especially helpful in transitioning students and parents from face-to-face schooling to an online school.

Step 9: Develop transitions for students and parents to online learning. School districts typically develop transition plans for students as they move from an elementary school to a secondary school, but when we first began our cyber school, we forgot about the importance of transition steps for our students and their parents. This was a big mistake.

Students and parents need some hand-holding to acclimate to the world of online learning. I suggest beginning with a student and parent orientation meeting where all of the stakeholders are present to review basic procedures and expectations.

After the orientation, I suggest asking the students to come to school for a few days to complete their online lessons. This allows students to begin their online education while still feeling connected to the school and gives them opportunities to get answers to their questions, both technical and instructional, quickly and efficiently. After a few days, students can transition to completing their online lessons from home.

In my experience, these transitions help to quickly identify students for whom online learning may not be the right educational fit. We have had students request a return to their traditional schedule after just a few days of online learning. We’ve also had students who waited weeks before realizing that online learning was not right for them. In those cases, students quickly got behind in their work and became frustrated when they returned to their traditional schedule and had to catch up on a significant amount of schoolwork.

Once we had our transition program in place, our cyber school became much better at identifying and resolving technical and instructional hurdles for students and their parents. Adding a transition program allowed us to become more pro-active. It became one of the final steps to creating a successful program.

Step 10: Market your online program. Once you have a successful online program, you should market it to your target audience. In our school district, our audience includes students from our district who are enrolled in cyber charter schools. On a monthly basis, I communicate with these students and their families by sending them information about our school district’s program offerings and special events. I send holiday cards and birthday cards to the students.

This outreach promotes both our school district and the Online Academy @ North Hills. In addition, we market our cyber school through press releases, our website and social media. We highlight the district’s achievements in community publications.

While marketing your online program, it is helpful to provide a “face” for your cyber school. Similar to the superintendent being the public face of the school district, a cyber school needs someone to act as the principal communicator.

In our district, I serve in this role by meeting with students, parents, teachers, administrators and the community at large. Recently, while at a grocery store, I was approached by a parent who recognized me from a photo that appeared in a local newspaper article about our online program. She began asking questions. Two days later, her daughter withdrew from a cyber charter school and enrolled in our cyber school.

Up-Front Preparation
Creating your own district-operated cyber school has many benefits. It can allow you to bring students back from cyber charter schools, recoup costs and provide a more flexible, customized learning experience for your students.

Based on our projected enrollments for next school year, we will have approximately 40 students attending our district-operated cyber school. This will save the school district approximately $250,000 in cyber-charter school tuition payments to several of the 16 cyber charter schools now competing in Pennsylvania. Educating these students in our own program costs significantly less than what we would have paid to outside course providers.

Doing your homework up front and learning from other people’s successes and mistakes will prepare your district for designing an online program that enables students to learn anytime, anywhere, anyplace and at any pace.

Jeffrey Taylor is assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and special programs in the North Hills School District in Pittsburgh, Pa. E-mail: taylorj@nhsd.net


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