In the years to come, Washington County residents could see more locally affiliated options for enrolling their children in online schools.
Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Bruce Kidder said during last week's regular board of education meeting that he was looking into the possibility of the district providing its own online community school. Students from all six districts in the county have enrolled in such schools, redirecting about $1.5 million in public funding to those entities.
School districts themselves can sponsor community schools, and that option is being weighed in more places than Frontier. There have been discussions about forming a consortium with the Ohio Valley Educational Service Center to get better pricing on taking that step.
"If we could create some type of an online option that we could manage locally, that would keep some of the local tax money local," said Tom Gibbs, superintendent of the Fort Frye and Warren Local school districts.
Although the thought is that the funding following students to community schools is state money, Gibbs said it actually takes a bite out of local tax dollars as well.
He explained that state funding is determined by taking the state per-pupil amount (about $5,732, the last amount established before the current "bridge" formula was enacted) and multiplying it by the number of students, then subtracting 20 mills worth of local property tax. That means the state isn't really providing $5,732 per student, even though that's the base amount that would go to the community school.
At a glance
State foundation money going to online community schools in fiscal year 2013
Belpre City - $180,238.60
Fort Frye Local -$196,408.59
Frontier Local - $150,157.17
Marietta City - $457,627.34
Warren Local - $537,535.79
Wolf Creek Local - $58,043.72
Total - $1,580,011.21
Source: Times research.
More than a third of funding in Washington County diverted from online schools comes from the Warren district. It is believed that recent cuts to the district, including the elimination of high school busing, helped boost that number.
The Frontier and Warren districts already offer online credit recovery for students, and Marietta High School has some online course options. But establishing community schools would allow students to take all their courses online, while still graduating with a local high school diploma and, if school boards approve it, being able to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
"I think it's better if we keep those kids under our umbrella," Marietta Superintendent Harry Fleming said.
Fleming resident Jessica Wears' four children - in the first, fourth, eighth and 10th grades - are enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy. The prospect of them being able to play sports or join the band or choir would make her consider enrolling them in a Warren online school.
"It would give them more to look forward to," said Wears, 37.
Wears said she chose the online school option because she feels she can monitor her children better at home. A teacher once told her one child with some learning difficulties would do better in a home-school environment, she said.
Her sister-in-law, Rebecca Wears, 43, also lives in the Warren Local district and has her two children, a junior and a freshman, enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy. She said she feels the home-based learning provides a safer environment while still giving her students a quality educational experience.
"They have actual virtual classes," Rebecca Wears said. "They even do their labs online now."
And teachers do provide private online lessons when needed, she said.
If a locally run community school provided the same level of support and quality, Rebecca Wears said she would be open to the possibility of enrolling her children.
Local schools would likely not be creating their own online curriculum but using those from providers. The quality of the education students get in that way is something area superintendents are focusing on as they consider adding online options.
"If we're going to give a Wolf Creek Local, Waterford High School diploma, we're going to make absolutely sure it's taught by a credentialed individual" and provides the same quality students receive in the classroom, said Wolf Creek Superintendent Bob Caldwell.
Caldwell said six children in the Wolf Creek district are enrolled in online schools. Three of them did so for religious reasons, which Caldwell said he respects, but others might be interested in enrolling in a district-sponsored community school.
If those children get a good education and the district recoups funding, "certainly that's a win-win for both of us," he said.
Gibbs noted that while there are quality online schools, community school students tend to receive poorer results on state testing than their traditional public counterparts.
"Our traditional option is a very good option," Gibbs said, referring to both Warren and Fort Frye. "I don't want to create an online option that doesn't offer that same level of service to our kids."
And that could make the option expensive. In addition to the online curriculum, the district could end up employing certified teachers to routinely check in or meet with students and make sure they're meeting certain goals.
"When you do that, it increases the cost," Gibbs said.
Despite such concerns, online schooling is growing. Fleming noted many people now earn their master's degrees and doctorates online. Caldwell said more and more college students are taking online courses.
, and that's only one area where technology touches them.
"It's not just a tool. It's our young people's lives nowadays," Caldwell said.