With its newly introduced Seneca Valley Cyber and Arts: the Academy of Choice program, school officials say they are redefining the way the district offers education in the 21st century.
“It’s creating many more opportunities for students, and it creates much more flexibility for students,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Matthew McKinley, who is steering the new program with cyber coordinator Denise Manganello.
While the district is in its third year of offering cyber education to students in grades 9 through 12, its new academy will expand online opportunities for students who seek less-traditional ways of pursuing their educations.
The district now has 34 full-time cyber students, according to Linda Andreassi, Seneca's director of communications. About 800 students take a combination of online classes and traditional brick-and-mortar courses. Andreassi said many of those online courses allow the students to work at their own pace in the school's computer labs.
"They can go back and forth depending on how their schedule works," she said.
The Academy of Choice will expand cyber services to the middle-school level. McKinley said the district already offers online courses to seventh- and eighth-graders but will offer cyber programs to fifth- and sixth-grade pupils next school year. There are no additional costs for the online classes.
The Academy of Choice also will add a performing arts program, which McKinley said is a repackaging of courses the district already offers. The district also may add additional courses in specific performing arts programs that are not currently offered at the district -- and which may lead to hiring more professionals in that field to teach them -- but McKinley said those details are being developed.
"It depends on what courses are brought in," Andreassi said.
By opting for the district's performing arts cyber program, students still may use existing Seneca Valley facilities to practice their arts but will have flexibility to work on other studies on their own schedules if they choose cyber classes. That gives them the option to devote more time to their craft.
The Academy of Choice programs also will go head to head with the state’s other cyber schools, including the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.
Andreassi said the district lost 40 students in the past year to performing arts schools like the Beaver County’s Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center -- which also is home to the PA Cyber Charter School and the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. An additional 110 Seneca students also attend just cyber or cyber charter programs, according to Andreassi.
State law requires tax dollars to follow students who leave their local public schools for alternative institutions. Andreassi estimated Seneca Valley lost $1.5 million in funding last year due to students moving to cyber schools.
“Seneca Valley is mandated to pay that tuition,” she told school board members at last week’s meeting. “We can do it better.”
Among the advantages for students who attend the Academy of Choice, she said, is the name on their diplomas.
Retaining School Connections
Andreassi said the Academy of Choice is a more desirable option for those planning a career in military service.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense website, cyber school diplomas are categorized for recruiting purposes as "Tier 2," a classification that includes General Education Development degrees. Because of their affiliation with a traditional public school district, Andreassi said, graduates from the Seneca program would be categorized as "Tier 1," in the same category with traditional high school students.
Andreassi said students in the Seneca cyber program also may attend proms, homecoming and other high school rites of passage at the brick-and-mortar school.
“It keeps that connection,” she said.
The cyber classes will be based on traditional Seneca Valley courses.
“We provide a curriculum to our cyber students based on our own rigorous curriculum found in the tradition setting, so you know you are getting the same high standard, whether it's sitting at a classroom desk or in front of a computer,” she said in a message to Cranberry Patch.
Performing and Studying
As they would if they were choosing a major at a college or university, students in Seneca's performing arts program will be offered opportunities to study in nine areas, which are being developed. For example, if a student chooses an emphasis in musical performance, the school would map out a course of study with choices such as chorus and music therapy in addition to core classes in English and math, Andreassi said.
Once the student graduates, the student’s diploma will reflect the special concentration in the pupil’s program of study. This intensive study might help them earn acceptance at colleges with competitive performing arts programs, Andreassi said.
“We believe it will give students another leg up on their competition.”
Mapping Career Paths
Another component of the Academy of Choice is the Career Pathways Program. Similar to the performing arts program, Career Pathways will repackage courses already offered for students who are interested in concentrating on a certain career, such as hospitality, health services or the literary arts industries. These options, taught by the Seneca staff, will let students customize their education by creating concentrations and putting them in the areas that best fit their future plans or goals.
“If they know what they’re going to do early on, the can really dive into that area,” McKinley said.
Seneca Valley also uses the Penn Foster Career Program, an accredited school of independent study where students can earn credits toward graduation and a post-secondary certificate.
Selling Seneca's Options
The district also is developing a Cyber Outreach Program. McKinley said the district is reaching out to other schools across the state and offering to let them buy “seats” in Seneca’s cyber program.
He said a school district in Wilkes-Barre is interested in participating. Longmore Academy, an alternative education school in Mars, already has bought seats for the next school year, he said.
McKinley said the Academy of Choice would charge $3,000 per seat for a regular education student for the school year. For a special education student, the cost is $5,000 per seat for the year. Those fees include an unlimited number of classes.
The district also will charge $200 for a one-semester course and $400 for a year-long course.
As they have since the cyber program started three years ago, the district’s teachers log on to the cyber program to check on their students’ progress and read their journals. Students in the cyber program may also communicate with teachers by email.
McKinley said the district’s teachers have embraced plans for the Academy of Choice. The time the teachers spend on the cyber program is covered by their contract with the district, he said.
At last week’s board meeting, school officials unanimously approved spending $15,800 to market the Academy of Choice over the next three months. Andreassi said two billboards -- one in Jackson Township and one in Cranberry Township -- will be erected. The district also will advertise the program on local radio stations and in newspapers.
Andreassi said the district will monitor the success of the marketing efforts over the next three months. If the program expands, so will its advertising, she said.
The district also will offer an information night on the Academy of Choice at 6 p.m. April 12 at the senior high school. Residents may register for the program by going to the district’s website.