Aug. 7, 2017

What is the definition of attendance at cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania? It depends on who you ask.

By Stephanie Hacke

Aug. 7, 2017

What is the definition of attendance at cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania? It depends on who you ask.

By Stephanie Hacke

(Photo by Steinar Engeland/Unsplash)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

If Johnny attended 21st Century Cyber Charter School, he would be required to submit his work at least once a week to be considered present for five days of school — even if he did all of his assignments in two days.

At PA Virtual Charter, Johnny would be required to log in to the school’s online learning management system each day. There, he could attend live classes and be monitored through a webcam on his computer. The school would track how long he viewed each assignment, as well as the time it took him to complete each task.

Both systems for tracking attendance at cyber charter schools are OK in Pennsylvania because state regulations place the responsibility on the cybers to determine how they track attendance. Cyber charter schools have the freedom to create their own attendance policies — which are approved as a part of the application process — and then simply report back to the state with measures that show they’re adhering to them.

“Presumably, definitions of what constitutes attendance and absence would be in such policy, as would how attendance is tracked and/or monitored,” Casey Smith, acting communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Education [PDE], wrote in an email.

How each of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charter schools tracks attendance varies greatly — from 21st Century Cyber Charter School, where a point system equates to hours it should take students to complete an assignment, to Commonwealth Charter Academy, where attendance is calculated by when students log in along with their participation and contact made with teachers.

As much as attendance policies differ, so do the data cyber charters track to monitor attendance.

PublicSource reviewed attendance policies from 13 of the state’s 14 cyber charter schools and data from 10 of the 14 schools that replied to Right-to-Know requests. Attendance data showed student enrollment at the state’s cyber charter schools, which ranged from a full year of 180 days to even one day. While records showed some students had perfect attendance, others, in some schools, were absent for nearly 100 days.

Consistency needed

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are funded based on the number of students attending their school for any given time. National charter school leaders say states should have uniform policies for all cyber charter schools to establish accurate tracking of attendance; it’s a measure that would make it easier to ensure students are actually learning and taxpayers aren’t getting duped.

“You’re dealing with public dollars and for a state to simply say schools can count however they want and then tell us that they’ve done that, it doesn’t strike me as a sound state policy,” said Nelson Smith, senior advisor with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “You need consistency across the various schools that the state is financing in order for taxpayers to know that the dollar is being spent well.”

Jaymie Jamison, a 4th grade special education teacher with the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, updates files and goes through a checklist on acclimating new students on Aug. 2, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Tim Eller, executive director of the Keystone Alliance for Public Charter Schools and former spokesperson for the PDE under the Corbett administration, said unless the state did a forensic audit of the cyber charter system, it has no way of knowing attendance of cyber students.

"The only thing the state collects is the report signed by the CEO saying they met the hours or days requirement,” he said.

The PDE’s enforcement comes in the form of revoking or refusing to renew a charter in case the charters do not meet attendance criteria, Smith said. However, that has never happened. All cyber charter schools that have closed in Pennsylvania surrendered their charters. Smith said the information on the cyber schools that surrendered their charters was not readily available, as the schools did so before any adjudication or documented process.

How they track

Most, if not all, of the state’s cyber charter schools utilize a learning management system — a computer software that allows for monitoring and delivery of educational services — to track attendance, but school leaders said they’re not all using the same system.

“It’s such a sophisticated level of monitoring student attendance beyond what’s necessary in a traditional school district that there really isn’t a statewide mechanism, an accountability mechanism, that can monitor somewhere like a cyber charter school,” said Maurice Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy.

All state cyber charter schools are required to annually submit a list of unexcused absences to the PDE through the Pennsylvania Information Management System [PIMS], an online data portal. Each school also submits a breakdown of its habitual truant students, listed by race, gender and grade, to the PDE through the Safe Schools report. Those numbers are reviewed annually and can be a part of assessing school improvement tactics, Casey Smith said.

"For a state to simply say schools can count however they want and then tell us that they’ve done that, it doesn’t strike me as a sound state policy.”

School leaders say much of the responsibility with attendance falls on them.

However, Flurie said PDE officials make visits two to six times a year to the school’s headquarters to oversee various matters, including attendance issues and the handling of special education.

Cyber charter schools are subject to the same attendance requirements as any other public school, Smith said. The requirements include 900 hours of instruction time for students in first through sixth grades and 990 hours for students in grades seven through 12, per Public School Code.

“It is the school’s responsibility to accommodate students and meet those requirements,” she wrote.

A new law

Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law in November 2016 that defines truancy in an attempt to improve school attendance. The law goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year, however, it does not provide charter schools with the same responsibility and authority for enforcing certain truancy-related provisions, Smith said. Charter schools were not included in the definitions of “school” and “educational entity” in the new law, she said.

Charter schools are required by the state to report to a student’s home district when a child has more than three unexcused absences, which is considered to be habitual truancy. It is the student’s home district that is responsible for enforcing truancy requirements and filing citations with the magistrate when necessary. This arrangement will continue under the new law. However, Smith said, the PDE is willing to work with the Legislature to revise or clarify the responsibility of school districts and charter schools for enforcing truancy.

The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is headquartered in Midland, Pa. The school has six buildings in the Beaver County borough. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

At some cyber charter schools, once a student has three days of unexcused absences, staff sets up a meeting with the student and their parents — even if it’s virtual — to create a plan to address the issue. Other school officials said they put such a plan in place once a student reaches several unexcused absences and is falling behind on their work.

“In some cases the truancy and reporting procedures work well, and others it does not,” said Patricia Rossetti, CEO of PA Distance Learning Charter School, whose school tracks attendance by category, live learning class and related service sessions. “Successful abatement of truancy requires the charter school and local school district to work together with support of the local magistrate who typically knows how best to deal with parents in their jurisdiction.”

It’s a national problem

Attendance and enrollment tracking at cyber charter schools has been put in the national spotlight in recent months, after the Ohio Board of Education in June ordered the state’s largest full-time online charter school, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, to repay $60 million in state funds, saying the school had overstated its attendance figures, The Columbus Dispatch reported. The school is appealing that decision.

“I think if you look at Ohio, it’s probably the best example of a state trying to bring some sense and rationality to this issue of attendance and what it means to attend a cyber charter school,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Ohio, he said, tried to put definitions in place for attendance at cyber charter schools. Enforcement has been the issue.

A majority of states operate like Pennsylvania, where a definition of attendance and how it should be tracked in cyber charter schools is not spelled out in law, Ziebarth said. However, he said some states are creating policies that set a standard for how attendance should be tracked, allowing for the uniqueness of each school, yet holding them accountable.

Pennsylvania’s regulations are set up to allow for increased flexibility, Smith of PDE said.

“There are many ways to measure engagement beyond ‘seat time,’ and could present the opportunity for more personalized learning,” she wrote.

A uniform attendance system "might make oversight easier, but not better or more accurate."

Flexibility is good, said Nelson Smith, but there needs to be consistency.

“If the state wants to have a highly flexible policy, codify that. You can have laws that allow for flexibility. So long as everybody understands what the basis of accountability measures works out to,” he said.

The state could put a policy in place that requires attendance tracking to be done based on the performance of students, he said. Having attendance guidelines broken down in each school’s charter, as is done now, also is important to ensure there are no questions when it comes to enforcement.

Each school has its own system

Ana Meyers, executive director of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, wrote in an email that there needs to be flexibility in cyber charter school policies because each school is different.

Some schools, like PA Virtual, rely heavily on parent participation to ensure the child is learning.

“Our model is absolutely based on a learning coach being in the home,” said Jason Fitzpatrick, assistant dean of student services.

Commonwealth Charter Academy, with 9,200 students in 2016-17, has teachers verify that a student is progressing in their lessons when tracking attendance, Flurie said. Some students at Commonwealth work full-time jobs and do their work at night. That’s OK, Flurie said, as long as they’re getting it done and meeting the requirements.

Allison Hanle, a family involvement specialist with PA Distance Learning Charter School, demonstrates how the school monitors class attendance on its internal web platform on July 31, 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The school tracks more than log-ins because that data can be misleading, he said. A student could walk away from the computer and still be counted. They’ll even call a child if they took a test in one minute to make sure they knew the answers to ensure true learning and retention.

21st Century Cyber Charter operates on an asynchronous model, where students work at their own pace. Others offer a combination of asynchronous and synchronous models.

At 21st Century, which enrolled about 1,400 students in 2016-17, attendance is tracked weekly, said CEO Kim McCully. Each student has a learning coach who McCully says checks in with students several days a week and talks with a parent at least once every two weeks.

The school’s model allows for a student to go to dance or swimming practice all day and do their school work at night.

“We are not a normal school. We’re not. We just aren’t,” McCully said. “We fit the needs of those kids who don’t fit in a normal brick-and-mortar school.”

At Central Pennsylvania Digital Learning Foundation Charter School, student attendance used to be tracked solely by student logins.

When CEO Malynda Maurer came to the school in the 2015-16 school year, she said she focused on students building relationships with the school and becoming responsible learners.

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One of the changes she made was to attendance tracking.

“There was no way to know if it was the actual student that was signing in or someone else who had the username and password,” she said. “That was something that I felt could really be improved.”

In 2016-17, the school, with 188 students, tracked attendance through daily connections made with each student, either through email, phone calls or online “hangouts.” Students also submitted a weekly goals check-in. In 2017-18, attendance tracking will shift again to focus on student progress. How that will look is still being determined; the staff is working on the plan this summer, Maurer said.

At Pennsylvania Cyber, the state’s oldest and largest cyber charter school, leaders are looking at software that would track keystrokes and require students to send responses every so often, said CEO Brian Hayden, who noted the school is constantly trying to find ways to improve attendance tracking. If the student fails to respond, a teacher would be alerted.

Hayden said 865 students withdrew from Pennsylvania Cyber in the 2016-17 school year because of truancy, a 35 percent increase from the previous year. The school enrolled nearly 10,900 students in 2016-17.

"The only thing the state collects is the report signed by the CEO saying they met the hours or days requirement."

A uniform attendance tracking system in the state could limit the individuality of cyber charter schools, Flurie said.

“I’m very comfortable with our system, how it works,” he said. “Kids that enroll and they think they can hide in a cyber, we can catch because we have those mechanisms in place.”

A uniform tracking system also could result in less accuracy, Meyers said.

“It might make oversight easier, but not better or more accurate, and accuracy is more important than ease,” she said.

Agora CEO Michael Conti said he would support stricter state guidelines for attendance tracking, even including a unified system.

About 80 percent of the students at Agora — with a peak enrollment of 7,598 students in 2016-17 — are enrolled in a synchronous program where all classes are taught live and teachers interact with students and record attendance. The other 20 percent of students – enrolled in an asynchronous program – are tracked through daily log-ins. The students who earn the privilege to work in an asynchronous program with good grades are expected to complete daily course work to be counted in attendance, Conti said.

“We’re looking for ways to increase accountability on not just our students,” Conti said, “but also our parents to make sure that their students are in class and attending and getting the work done.”

StoryStephanie Hacke

Stephanie is a freelance journalist in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at

PublicSource reporter Mary Niederberger contributed reporting to this story.

PhotographyRyan Loew

Ryan is PublicSource's visual producer.

EditingHalle Stockton and Mila Sanina

Halle is PublicSource's managing editor. Mila is PublicSource's executive director.

Web development and graphicsNatasha Khan

Natasha is PublicSource's interactives & design editor.