Philadelphia School District Starts Own Cyber School

Philadelphia Virtual Academy, the district’s online school, was launched in September by officials who hope to compete with charters and cyber charters that have been drawing students from traditional public schools in big numbers. Philadelphia Virtual Academy has 300 students enrolled this year most of whom came from charters and cyber.

According to Kristen A. Graham of Philly.com, Alessandra Mullin who dances with the Pennsylvania Ballet and hopes to dance professionally after high school, switched to online education so that she could pursue her dream of dancing full time. However, she had a hard time convincing her parents, who had enrolled her at one of the top schools in the state, Masterman, that she was making the right decision.

“Somehow, I convinced them,” Mullin recently said. “If dance is what you really want to do, you do it all the time. You do it 100 percent.”

Stephen Mullin, her father, the former city finance and commerce director, admits he was worried at the prospect of his daughter switching to a cyber school.

“It was a scary proposition,” Stephen Mullin said. “Masterman is a great school. My hand was shaking when I signed her out of there.”

However, online education isn’t for everyone. Despite what is essentially a full-time job, Mullin is the rare teenager who’s self-motivated, a good planner, and cares enough about academics to prioritize them; Philadelphia Virtual Academy is clearly working for her. One can find her backstage with her peers, many of whom are enrolled in cyber charters, in costume, squeezing in schoolwork.

“I always have a book with me to read in the dressing room during my break,” Mullin said.

Nonetheless, critics, who view cyber schools with skepticism, say their academics are lackluster. Stephen Mullin said he ultimately gave his blessing to Alessandra’s cyber education because it is overseen by the district. Chester County Intermediate Unit, which operates online programs for a number of area districts and runs its own cyber school, provides courses and teachers for Philadelphia Virtual Academy.

Anderson, a district employee, understands the skepticism concerning cyber schools but believes the problem with many is that they are set up by for-profit companies.

“I’m not a big believer in financially driven models of education. I believe in public education. And we’re not saying, ‘this is the greatest thing in the world, this is going to solve all your problems’. We’re just being responsive to our students,” he said.

$15 million was set aside by the School Reform Commission to cover its bills for two years when it established the cyber school. To run this year, it will cost about $2 million.

Before switching to Philadelphia Virtual Academy officials estimate that roughly 270 of the school’s students came from charter schools or cyber charters. They added that at the school’s current enrollment, it saves the district about $275,000.