Come fall, Harrisburg school district students will have another way to learn, as district officials have announced a new, full-time cyber school.
On Monday night, district officials unveiled the Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy, which is meant to broaden educational options and offer an alternative to cyber charter schools.
“Early on, we asked our teachers to make calls to get feedback from our families. This was way back in March,” said Susan Sneath, chief academic officer for the district. “They were already telling us there was no way they were going to send their children back to [brick and mortar] school.”
Sneath knew the district needed to have another option for students. Thus, the Harrisburg Virtual Learning Academy (HVLA) was established.
According to the district, the HVLA will be full-time and free to Harrisburg students. The program offers K-12th grade enrollment, in which each student is provided a Chromebook.
This differs from the district’s existing Cougar Academy, which is a “blended” cyber program that requires that students also spend time inside the classroom. In contrast, HVLA is fully remote.
Students will receive recorded instruction from teachers with additional meetings as needed. While the school is primarily online, there are face-to-face tutoring options, including English language arts and math. Special education teachers, English as a second language teachers and reading specialists will be available to provide support.
Sneath explained that students will continue to receive academic advising through an assigned counselor and can expect outreach from a social worker to aid with social and emotional needs. Technology support will be readily available, as well, during school hours.
The school district plans to use trained educators from the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, an entity that supports local school districts. Additional faculty, such as counselors and academic advisors, will come from Harrisburg staff.
Students in HVLA can participate in academic advancement such as Advanced Placement courses and “gifted” programs. They will also be tied to their neighborhood’s school, which will allow access to all special events and extracurricular activities such as picture day, athletics and prom.
All HVLA students are considered Harrisburg Cougars, Sneath confirmed. They will all receive a diploma from the Harrisburg school district.
In the past, students in the district seeking online education have often looked to cyber charter schools, but Sneath hopes that this option curbs that.
“We want to keep our kids, and we want to provide the very best for our kids,” she said. “We developed HVLA with that in mind.”
HVLA will not take the place of the district’s remote learning plan for students in the case that students can’t return to school buildings in the fall. The cyber school is only for those who enroll.
“The intent of the people who enroll in HVLA is that they are going to stay in HVLA,” Sneath said.
With a proposed budget for the 2020-21 academic year that’s looking tight, Sneath hopes grant funding will help with cyber school costs.
The virtual school will go live by mid-August, Sneath said.
“I wouldn’t be in public education if I didn’t think brick and mortar was the very best way to educate kids,” Sneath said. “However, my hope and dream for HVLA is that parents in Harrisburg feel that their school district is supporting what they want.”