A Cyber-Glimmer of Hope in the Rust Belt

We've taken a look recently at feral users, students who've become adept at life on the Internet without parental or school training or acculturation and who interact in a kind of Lord of the Flies cyberworld. We've also thought and read a lot about the technology expectations with which our students arrive at college. Last week I was privileged to visit the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania.

The school's story is a great one, demonstrating how creative use of information technology in a small, economically depressed school district can provide benefits to both a local constituency and a geographically-dispersed one. It also raises the bar for higher education, with its implications about the skill levels, experiences, and expectations for learning delivery of a growing number of K-12 students heading our way. And it raises a hope that there may actually be some adults interacting with some K-12 kids in cyberspace; maybe we won't have to acculturate all of them for the first time as freshmen.

After leaving the US Green Building Council GreenBuild Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I drove south 45 minutes from through hill country into Chester, West Virginia, across the Ohio River into East Liverpool, Ohio, then along the river, upstream, to Midland, a city that has visibly suffered economically in past decades. Upstream and across the river, I could see signs of prosperity in the huge plumes of steam rising from electricity generating plants - also in Pennsylvania, but economically a world away.

In some ways, visiting this region is like visiting the Third World. You might assume, when you find a state-of-the-art cyber school located in this kind of place but serving students over a widely-distributed geographic area, that the school was placed here by someone who chose the location to take advantage of cheap wages and cheap rent. Not so in this case, the Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School was home grown. Here's how it happened.

When the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s, Midland was left with an 80 percent unemployment rate, during the next decade the number of students enrolled in the district dwindled by 60 percent. In 1985, Midland actually closed its high school - which had previously been a regular state-wide contender in basketball. Midland tried to include itself in regional school district consolidations within Pennsylvania, but no one wanted the financially bankrupt town's students. This led to the strange situation, continuing to this day, in which students from Midland, Pennsylvania attend high school in neighboring East Liverpool, Ohio.

Not sure how long the agreement with East Liverpool would last, and intending to widen its options, Midland chartered an Internet-based high school as a backup. That idea, with the leadership of the visionary and entrepreneurial district school superintendent Dr. Nick Trombetta, was expanded to a K-12 concept, leading to the now very successful Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (WPCCS), which serves nearly 2,200 students from around Pennsylvania and is continuing to grow at light speed. There are nearly as many students "attending" the school as there are residents in the town, but on any given day you won't find students physically in the school's office.

WPCCS mostly serves home-schooled learners who represent a range of students. Quite a few have medical, disciplinary, or other kinds of problems that make attending a physical school difficult, and many simply made the choice to learn online. Some high school students take as many as three courses at a time from a half-dozen community colleges through WPCCS, in addition to their regular high school curriculum. About half of the students are of high school age, but the range g'es right down to kindergarten. Enrolled students receive computer hardware and software and Internet connectivity through licensed vendors, and supplies like textbooks directly from the cyber school.

What makes the school a success for the students and families is its high-tech, high-touch focus on customer service and learning. The staff includes technicians and administrators, but also tutors, layers of instructional supervisors, and others who are on tap for students and parents via phone and e-mail (WebMail). A requirement of the school is that each student and a parent conduct a weekly progress status conversation with WPCCS staff. Students have a choice of curricula and the school has recently implemented Blackboard. I spoke with one instructional supervisor, Randy Calhoun, who is a thirty-year retiree from the East Liverpool School District. He says that for a veteran teacher like himself, "the constant flow of phone calls and e-mails with parents and students brings an entirely new and very satisfying perspective to the relationship between students and their school." He also notes that the school organizes some real world activities, such as visits to cultural centers, in order to satisfy specific curriculum requirements.

What makes the school a success for Midland is its revenue generation, as state funding for students - based on state dollars that their home school system would otherwise receive - flows into Midland. Exact numbers weren't available to me, but from just common knowledge, that's probably an average of several thousand dollars per student per year, for more than 2,000 students in a town that only has a few more than 3,000 residents. It's no wonder that the local millage for the Midland School District has gone down three years in a row. And it is a wonderful thing that without the expense of bricks and mortar, the WPCCS playing a growing role in the area's economy and has become the largest local employer.

What d'es all this mean for folks in higher education? Well, as I said at the beginning, these 2,000+ students are spending a lot of time in cyberspace, and they're doing it with involvement from both parents and teachers - a situation unlike the cyberspace experience of most K-12 students. I expect that by the time they graduate from high school, these students will be a little better-behaved online than their peers.

Further, students like these are going to reach us on campus with expectations about course delivery and level of customer service that have been shaped by a high-tech, high-touch online K-12 experience. If you factor in these students' expectations with related news stories like the one about Primrose School Franchising Company providing laptops to three-year-olds at its 120 locations - that's right, toddlers, basically - it is evidence once more that we have still only seen the tip of the information technology transformation iceberg in higher education.

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