(Last in a series of stories on education as students return to the classroom.)
The Mohawk Area School District is starting the new year with a virtual twist.
The district is now enrolling students in its own cyberschool within its high school.
Cyberschools allow students to take classes via the Internet without leaving home. However, students who attend the Mohawk’s cyberschool will go to school there and get their diplomas from there as well, explained district superintendent Kathleen Kwolek.
There are various reasons why students may choose cyberschool over traditional schooling, such as the need for more one-on-one attention or a desire to work at a different pace, Kwolek explained.
Mohawk’s cyberschool will be different from others in Pennsylvania, because an enrolled student will be required to attend class in the computer lab for the first week or so, until the school instructors feel the student is ready to work from home, she said.
After that, students will still have to take tests at the high school periodically, and those who are struggling or not putting in the necessary effort also will need to be working at the school, she said.
Mohawk’s program will use software called Education 2020, which focuses on science, social studies, language arts and math. Each of those core content classes will have a teacher assigned to monitor students’ progress, provide assistance to students and assign grades.
One teacher will oversee each core subject and will be in charge of grades 9 through 12. Those teachers also will have other classes to teach at the school throughout the day.
Although the software’s curriculum differs from Mohawk’s regular curriculum, it’s just as challenging, Kwolek said.
“We didn’t want anything watered down. We wanted something with some rigor.”
Mohawk also wants to incorporate electives and other subjects into its cyberschool, such as its vocational agriculture program.
“We do have fascinating programs in the district that you can’t do online,” Kwolek said.
Gym class requirements would have a different twist in cyberschool. One possibility the administration tossed around was assigning students physical activities to do at home, then calling the students in for a fitness test. The school would be able monitor whether they were keeping on task with their physical activity by checking indicators such heart rates.
Kwolek said that Mohawk has offered a form of cyberschool for the past four years, but it was available only after school and the curriculum was not as extensive as the new venture.
“We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work and the pitfalls of cybereducation,” she said.
High school principal Ray Omer said that Mohawk’s offering cyberschool also will benefit the district financially.
When a student enrolls in a cyberschool, the district in which he or she lives must pay the tuition. Mohawk last year had 24 students enrolled in cyberschools, which cost the district $196,000.
That was more than the district’s entire technology budget, Kwolek pointed out.
By keeping its students in house and offering the cybercourses, those costs will be eliminated.
The new program’s flexibility also can benefit students, Omer said. They will have the option of taking all of their classes at home, online in the high school’s technology center or a combination of both.
Allowing students that flexibility is important because Mohawk is “not just a pencil, pen and paper institution. It’s also a social institution,” Omer said.
The Education 2020 software adds another level of flexibility.
School psychologist Jim Glynn said the program allows courses to be customized to suit students’ specific needs.
“I think the students are really going to be in for a treat,” he said.
And while the administration is optimistic about the new cyberschool, Mohawk assistant principal Greg Ferencak acknowledged there will be challenges.
“It’s almost like a sleigh,” he said. “We’re just going to try and steer it in the right direction.”