Pa. plans to shut down online charter school Frontier

Posted: July 03, 2012

Pennsylvania's secretary of education says the state plans to pull the plug on the embattled Frontier Virtual Charter High School for failing to deliver the education it promised students.

In documents filed Monday, Secretary Ronald Tomalis said he intended to yank the Philadelphia-based school's charter for failing to follow its operating agreement, violating the state charter-school law, and failing to maintain the finances necessary to provide services to students.

Frontier, which has administrative offices at 3020 Market St., has been plagued with financial and management problems since it was launched last fall. It is one of 13 cyber charter schools in the state that enroll more than 42,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Education Department officials said Frontier provided online instruction in 2011-12 to about 90 students from across the state in their homes and at learning centers in Philadelphia and Johnstown.

The department has scheduled a July 23 hearing for Frontier in Harrisburg.

Frontier chief executive officer John B. Craig was notified Monday of the department's actions.

Brian H. Leinhauser, a lawyer who represents the cyber charter, said Frontier's board would hold an emergency meeting Thursday to decide whether to surrender the operating charter or fight to keep it.

Leinhauser said he had advised Craig not to comment.

The cyber charter's founders had applied to the state Education Department in fall 2010 to offer online instruction to high school students from across the state. The department approved Frontier to begin operating in 2011-12.

But the school never came close to enrolling the 300 ninth graders the founders had projected for the first year, and financial problems surfaced.

As with all charter schools in Pennsylvania, cyber charters' revenue comes from the students' home districts.

Frontier's money woes were so severe, state officials said, the cyber charter laid off its entire teaching staff and principal in March. And the state found that Frontier had failed to provide promised computers and printers for students or reimburse families for Internet costs.

Some Frontier checks bounced, and the school owes money to its former online curriculum provider and the firm it contracted to manage its finances.

Timothy Eller, spokesman for the Education Department, said Harrisburg became concerned about Frontier when department representatives visited March 8 for an annual evaluation to make sure the school was complying with state law and following its charter.

Although the department gave two months' notice, Frontier was unable to provide many of the requested documents and did not make teachers or the principal available for interviews. The department later learned the teachers and principal had been laid off days earlier.

"Everything rolled downhill from that point," Eller said.

Among other things, the state said Frontier had said it would use the curriculum of the for-profit company K12 Inc. But because of its unstable finances, Frontier stopped using K12's online-learning system and instructional materials for all but about 12 students. For the rest, Frontier used its own curriculum. The school owes K12 about $92,000.

And the small number of students who signed up with Frontier included 21-year-olds who had dropped out of school and took some classes to earn GEDs. The school had not been approved to provide such classes. The state alleges that the cyber school did not inform districts it was billing them for GED students, in violation of the state charter law.

Tomalis' decision marks the first time in three years that the department has begun revocation proceedings against a cyber charter.

The department began a hearing in August 2009 to revoke the charter of Agora Cyber School following allegations of financial mismanagement involving a company owned by Agora's founder, Dorothy June Brown.

The state hearing was halted, and multiple state and federal lawsuits were filed. As part of a settlement, Agora was allowed to continue operating, but its board was replaced. Brown agreed to cut all ties to Agora, but received $1.7 million from the state and $1.3 million from K12, which ran the school.

A federal criminal investigation that includes Agora's operations was begun in 2010 and is continuing, according to knowledgeable sources.


Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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