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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here -- Smooth transition at cyber schools

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An agora in ancient Greek cities was an open space that served as a meeting ground for citizens.

Agora Cyber Charter School is a meeting place the ancient Greeks could never have imagined – a gathering in cyberspace, with a different kind of human contact.

Agora Cyber Charter School proclaims on its opening web page, “Don’t change the way they learn. Change the way they’re taught.” The kindergarten-12th grade school administration is based in King of Prussia, its students, all over the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Agora, a public school, will be 15 years old this year, plenty of time to plant its roots. Richard Jensen, chief executive officer, believes the roots are firmly in place and the school’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic has been proof of one of its strengths.

“Our students did not face a major shift. There’s been smooth continuity for families who have chosen to attend cyber schools,” Dr. Jensen said in a phone interview last week.

“My heart goes out to superintendents who have had to make quick, sharp decisions,” he said. “Their model of students coming into a building has presented very stressful challenges.

Some Jensen said, are doing well, some not so well.

The shutdown of schools has resulted in increased enrollment for Agora Cyber School. Many families who experienced brick-and-mortar schools’ performance last spring chose to attend cyber charter schools.

A public school Agora Cyber School is supported by local taxes. The funding formula gives the cyber school 75% of a regular public school’s funding for each student from a local district enrolled. If a district pays $10,000 per student for the general population, a public charter school receives $7,500 for each of its students from that district.

“One of the things districts don’t always take into account is that we’re educating children, providing all of the instructional services that a public school provides,” Jensen said. In a typical school district, “1% to 2% of funding goes to cyber charter schools. Is that really crippling local school districts?”

He defends the value of cyber schools.

Public charter schools have to follow the same guidelines as in-person schools. “At Agora,” Jensen said, “all teachers are state certified and they meet the standards of Act 82, the Teacher Effectiveness legislation, in many areas.”

The school has 22 counselors, emotional and academic support and learning specialists.

Agora, which serves thousands of students, offers personal attention. Each student is assigned a family coach, who is the liaison between Agora and the student’s family. “This additional layer of individualized attention provides consistent one-on-one support throughout the school year,” the school’s website says. “Serving as the family’s first point of contact, family coaches are based regionally throughout the state to serve students and families within their assigned territory.”

The family coach meets with each student on a regular basis to confirm the student is fully engaged and participating in all facets of their learning. The coaches help to organize Agora Days Out events that bring students and families together for in-person events and socialization.

Understanding the need for socialization, the school offers more than 25 clubs ranging from Girls Who Code to Anime and Travel clubs. There’s a cooking club and Harry Potter Club.

The Destinations Career Academy combines traditional high school courses with industry-relevant career paths in business, health care and information technology.

Agora has a synchronous learning model that provides live classes taught in real-time throughout the state. It offers 19 Advance Placement courses, 14 honor courses and 80 electives.

One thing Agora does not have is a sports program but students can make arrangements to participate in sports at local school districts.

A seven-member school board guides Agora in the usual operations and it pays attention to student welfare. At a recent meeting Chief Academic Officer Anne Butler presented the names of nine students who had participated in a challenge by NaNoWriMo, an “organization that provides tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds.”

Dr. Butler announced that the middle school and high school participants each wrote a novel of 50,000 words. The school board voted to honor the students with special recognition.

Dr. Jensen has been at Agora School since 2011. He is a former teacher at Plumstead Christian School and a former associate pastor at a Hilltown church. He and his wife have two children and they live in East Rockhill Township, Bucks County.


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