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GOING ONLINE: Eliot Hawk, a fall 2012 Slippery Rock University education graduate, stands at his cyber teaching board as part of his teacher observation program. SRU is preparing teachers for classrooms of the future by including learning related to teaching online and at cyber schools.

SRU prepares cyber-school teachers

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University's College of Education has long prided itself on preparing the best teachers to meet and exceed the demands of today's modern classroom. To keep pace with the changing world, SRU has extended its teacher training program to include cyber charter schools.

Part of that expansion includes allowing students to complete their mandatory field experience coursework at cyber schools.

"We typically have six to eight students who take up the cyber charter school student field experience option and work shoulder-to-shoulder with a cyber school teacher learning the ins and outs and polishing their skills with both online teaching and limited face-to-face tutoring sessions," said Matthew Erickson, an SRU special education instructor with an extensive background in cyber education.

"We know there are jobs out there in charter schools and the field is rapidly growing, so we want our students to be both prepared and aware of the options," he said.

Dan Holman, a May SRU special education graduate, went right from college graduation to being a special education instructional supervisor using his cyber school teacher training to lead the way.

"I did my special education field work at a cyber charter school and I loved it. It is a different atmosphere than a bricks-and-mortar school. I am dealing with special education students and their parents on a daily basis. Holman also did fieldwork with the Slippery Rock School District.

"Every day I have something new to talk about as I daily revise the Individual Education Plan for the student. Many of my students are on a self-paced program, but I still have to keep them advancing. Some of the students now being assigned to me are those who are coming into the school year late. We have already completed two semesters, so those students need IEPs that will keep them on track toward graduation."

He said working at a cyber schools "is both a different realm and unique. I never thought I would be dealing with some of the issues, but I enjoy the challenge. It is a trifecta keeping me, the student and the parents on task."

The commonwealth has 157 brick-and-mortar charter schools and 16 cyber schools.

Before cyber education became part of Pennsylvania's educational system, college students wanting to become school teachers in the commonwealth were required to spend a semester working in a traditional school classroom as part of their college education. The pre-service teachers would first observe the classroom teacher and class, then gradually take over more-and-more of the daily lesson delivery until they took complete control.

"This is a very good, hands-on approach that gives up-and-coming teachers the experiences they need when they are hired by a school district and given their own classroom," Holman said.

"We also offer the cyber school option to show our students there are employment opportunities in this area. We have already had a number of our graduates hired by charter schools, and those graduates who have been hired by the traditional schools at least have the knowledge of how cyber schools operate," he said.

The relatively new cyber school concept is showing substantial growth in Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported 32,000 students were enrolled in cyber charter schools last year, with four new schools opening in 2012. The Pennsylvania Department of Education held hearings last November on applications to open eight additional cyber charter schools this year.

Erickson said that cyber charter schools, which cover kindergarten through 12th-grade classes, deliver a student's education online. In most operations, the school provides the student the necessary computer and related equipment. The student then logs into class via the Internet at the appropriate time - and class gets under way.

"The day's lessons can follow a standard curriculum with a live, online teacher, or, when appropriate, offer a self-paced learning curriculum," Erickson said. The self-paced system is popular for those students with learning disabilities that require extended time to complete academic tasks.

Prior to joining the SRU faculty in 2011, Erickson worked in cyber education as a special education teacher and a lead and assistant principal.

Students- and their parents - choose cyber schools for a variety of reasons, he said.

"Sometimes it is a case of the student having a disability; or it can result from bullying; and it is often an alternative for a student who has previously been a disciplinary problem at a particular school. Cyber schools can help eliminate stigmas and stereotyping for the student and give them a new start," he said.

"The schools have been very successful, graduating the largest class of any district in the commonwealth last spring," Erickson said. "Class size in virtual classroom are usually limited to less than 22 students and the teacher can be anyone selected by the charter school who has a Pennsylvania teaching certificate. The requirement allows a teacher living in Italy, with a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, to teach Italian online through the cyber school. The schools can take similar opportunities for other courses. A teacher employed at a cyber school can relocate with a spouse or for other reasons, and keep right on teaching the same class online."

"Some cyber schools offer specific concentrations, such as a focus on art, music, business, and many also include face-to-face opportunities so students can meet one another and learn the necessary socialization skills that are part of growing up," he said.

"Typically a teacher may allow a few minutes as the students are logging in for social interaction among the students, then at the touch of a key, restrict the communication to teacher-class discussion, or to address specific students. Students 'raise their hand' to ask or answer questions by simply pushing a key as they watch the screen," Erickson said. Teachers can also arrange personal virtual tutoring sessions that provide one-on-one assistance when necessary.

All online classes are recorded, allowing the student to later replay the lesson to better understand the material, or to catch up on a lesson missed during an absence, he said. In some cases, students attending a cyber school can gather at a central location - possibly within the neighborhood or at a community facility such as a YMCA or library to join the class.

Students attending cyber charter schools or home schools are permitted to participate in their home district's athletic and extracurricular programs with some stipulations, Erickson said. "This gives such students the opportunity to improve their athletic skills or join in band, chorus or other activities that don't meet during the school day. Some cyber schools have even planned proms."

Cyber schools often offer specific socialization events such as bowling nights for the students, field trips, coffee house appearances, ski trips and other family-interaction activities.

Erickson said the research results are still mixed as to the overall success of such schools.

"Online charter schools are a great option for a number of those with disabilities, both physical and learning. The online option may offer them the chance to build more confidence without the peer pressure of a more traditional school. Students on the autism spectrum or those struggling with social interactions can often build their social skills in a different atmosphere other than the more traditional school. Focusing on social goals in smaller settings to build comfort and confidence may better prepare them to return to their traditional public school with their peers," he said.

Like their brick-and-mortar colleagues, funding continues to be an issue. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is currently reviewing plans to change how charter schools are funded in the commonwealth. Currently, some of a student's education funds follow the student from the home district to the cyber school.