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Hope yet for Greenfield-based virtual school

At a full committee meeting next week, the district’s innovation subcommittee will recommend that Greenfield continue operating a virtual school — a public cyber school that uses the Internet to teach students across the state. The Massachusetts Virtual Academy hosts 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield.

Forced by law to transition its three-year-old virtual innovation school into a new state-authorized virtual school, School Committee members originally had no interest in running a state-operated entity built off the charter school model.

But Jeff Wulfson, the state’s deputy commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education, said that the new virtual school would continue to be locally run, albeit with more reporting and state oversight. It would resemble a Horace Mann Charter School, he said, which is independently run by a board of trustees but still relies on some local district input.

Wulfson, who participated in a half-hour conference call with the subcommittee Thursday, said multiple times that the state would be willing to help Greenfield fill out a required proposal to open a state-authorized virtual school.

“We do truly want to make this work,” said Wulfson. “We understand it is a complicated transition.” Greenfield will now have about a month extension to submit its application. It was originally due on March 25.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, only two of seven School Committee members voted to send a proposal to the state — a decision that seemed to mark the end of the virtual school era in Greenfield.

But now, the extended deadline and new assurances from the state have convinced innovation subcommittee members Doris Doyle, John Lunt and Mayor William Martin to support the transition. They even indicated that they’d like to apply for the maximum certificate of five years. If just one other committee member can be swayed to join their side, then the district will be proceeding with a virtual school after all.

None of the four other members — Maryelen Calderwood, Marcia Day, Daryl Essensa and Francia Wisnewski — have publicly indicated in the past two weeks how they would vote if the question resurfaced.

But Essensa had initially supported sending in a proposal because she wanted the district to have more time to weigh its options. The other three voted against it, for a variety of reasons.

The School Committee would likely have to rescind its February vote — an action that requires a majority rule — before making a new vote to submit a proposal.Lunt said that the committee could appoint members to the board of trustees and then work out an arrangement of shared or contracted services between the district and the new virtual school.

He said that the proposal would need to outline the extent of the administrative and technical services the district would provide the new virtual school, before ultimately transferring this off to newly appointed administrators. At a previous meeting, Superintendent Hollins had indicated that the central administrative office spends nearly as much time managing the virtual school as any other school in the district.

Hollins said she had a series of questions for the state on how special education services would be impacted.

Wulfson said that the new state-authorized virtual school should be able to continue contracting with K12 — the for-profit curriculum company that Greenfield has partnered with for the past three years. Since the February vote, the fate of the Massachusetts Virtual Academy has been uncertain and its students had no clear option of where to attend school next fall. Families said their students enrolled in the school for a variety of reasons — ranging from athletic and artistic endeavors to adverse neurological or biological conditions — and cannot attend a “brick-and-mortar” school.

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