Even though the average student starts AHCCS reading two years below grade level, the school does well on value-added: how much a student learns in a year. AHCCS made Adequate Yearly Progress for 12 of 13 subgroups of students, and now retains more than 70 percent of its students. At the request of parent groups, AHCCS plans to open an elementary school in Chester as soon as the Pennsylvania Department of Education allows. (PDE has had the application since last September.)
Like other charter schools, AHCCS is an autonomous public school combining public-school equality with private school flexibility. Like traditional public schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition, impose religion or practice selection admissions. Yet, like private schools, cha-ters are chosen by the students' parents, and can innovate without asking permission from local school boards. So long as parents enroll and children pass the state tests, charter leaders get to change staff and curricula, which is how AHCCS turned around. It's also why charter schools are pioneering the new world of cyber education.
How do cyber schools work? For rural students, cyber learning offers a broader range of courses and no more long bus rides. For chronically ill students, cyber learning means no viruses save computer viruses. Perhaps most important, since all the courses are taped, students with work or family commitments can take classes on their own time, fitting in schoolwork around jobs or child care. Students who in a regular school fall behind get to repeat a lesson until they understand it. On the flip side, students can finish a course early and start its sequel once they pass the final. Cyber-schooling frees students from the old school schedule and calendar.
Cyber-schooling frees special-education students, who make up 26 percent of AHCCS enrollment. As the parent of an ADHD child told me: "There was no flexibility for my son at his old school, and he needed it … learning in a structured environment where he has to focus all day was frustrating for him and he came home unmotivated. I have none of those concerns now. He can take breaks, get up, and walk around as much as he wants. It suits him so much better. No peers or teachers are annoyed by his fidgeting. If he misses something in class, he can just play it back later."
I surveyed AHCCS parents, finding that they assigned the school an A-, compared to a C for their prior schools. For special-education parents and students, the differences were even greater.
Cyber-schooling also frees teachers. Teachers no longer monitor the lunchrooms and hallways, since there aren't any. Cyber teachers don't take roll or cover simple concepts since computers do all the dumb work.
Instead, teachers teach their courses, answer questions, build relationships with students and parents, constantly monitor student progress and assign students tutoring programs to suit their needs. In short, cyber teachers are free to reach and teach.
As a veteran of traditional schools told me: "I was a great math tutor, but we have a number of programs that are better than I am, so now I just get to know them, assign and monitor their progress, and then assign again."
AHCCS even has a senior prom, and extracurricular activities that its student rate more highly than those at their prior schools!
Like any free choice, cyber-schooling is not for everyone. But for some teachers and students, it makes a world of difference. n
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and serves on the AHCCS board. His two children attend traditional public schools.