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Families fighting to save Greenfield virtual school

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Dakota Tirrell of Greenfield is a tenth grade student at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is set to close on June 30.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Dakota Tirrell of Greenfield is a tenth grade student at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is set to close on June 30.

  • David Pulaski, of Greenfield, is a 7th-grader at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is scheduled to close on June 30. (Courtesy Linda Pulaski)

    David Pulaski, of Greenfield, is a 7th-grader at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is scheduled to close on June 30. (Courtesy Linda Pulaski)

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Dakota Tirrell of Greenfield is a tenth grade student at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is set to close on June 30.
  • David Pulaski, of Greenfield, is a 7th-grader at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy, which is scheduled to close on June 30. (Courtesy Linda Pulaski)

Now they’re doing whatever they can to try and save the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — a locally controlled school that uses the Internet to teach 470 students across the state, including a dozen from Greenfield.

Many parents are planning to attend the school district’s previously scheduled innovation subcommittee meeting tonight to advocate for the school to continue.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Doris Doyle wanted to give families a chance to publicly voice their concerns about not having a cyber school for their children in the fall. A new law means that there will be at least a one-year delay before another virtual school of its kind is allowed to open in Massachusetts.

John Lunt and Mayor William Martin, the other two members of the subcommittee, are viewing tonight’s meeting as a discussion of what will happen during the school’s final months and how the district can help parents transition out of the district.

A new law regulating cyber schools means that Greenfield’s virtual school needed to transition into a state-operated school run by a separate board.

Not wanting to take part in creating a school run with little local control, the Greenfield School Committee voted last Thursday to not submit a required application to the state. Most School Committee members have said that the vote was final.

Since then, virtual school families from across the state have started an online petition and written letters to the School Committee and to legislators.

Parents have said the public cyber school was a haven for their children, many of whom had neurological or behavioral problems and could not otherwise attend a brick-and-mortar school.

For those who couldn’t afford the high costs of private schooling or move their way through long wait lists at charter schools, the virtual school was the perfect and only place their children could learn, said parents.

“It’s not an option for us not to have the option,” said Linda Pulaski, a Greenfield resident, whose 12-year-old son David attends the school.

David Pulaski’s health conditions were making it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for him to function inside the district’s brick-and-mortar schools, his mother said.

But this year, his first in the virtual school, his grades and confidence have improved as he learns at home at his own pace, she said. The school’s administrators and local state-licensed teachers were there to help the education process by phone or Internet.

Two other Greenfield residents, Jeanne Madore and Deanne Brochu, each said their high-school aged grandsons had received in-person help from local teachers, the school’s Principal Carl Tillona and head program administrator Ryan Clepper.

Their grandsons — Dakota Tirrell and Austin Edwards, respectively — were unable to learn in brick-and-mortar schools and now, if the virtual school closes, are at risk of dropping out.

“(Dakota) doesn’t want to go back,” said Madore. “I’m so worried if they don’t keep this ... he’s going to quit. This is his one chance to actually make it.”

Rebecca Deans-Rowe, a Southborough resident and mother of a 13-year-old virtual school student, started a digital petition on Change.org Monday to rally support among affected families.

“It seems from my perspective and from the perspective of a lot of parents that the (School) Committee and legislators have not worked closely together in implementing a transition for MAVA under the new legislation,” she said, in a phone interview.

“It’s very good legislation ... (but) somehow MAVA slipped through the cracks. Our 469 students are left displaced if something isn’t done to change it,” she said.

Parents have said they don’t know where they will send their students in the fall. Some said they’d look into School Choice options. One mother said her son would likely live with a friend in Connecticut so he could attend an art school there.

Others have indicated they’d continue homeschooling students using the private online curriculum company K12, which had been running Greenfield’s cyber school under contract.

K12 spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said that students could enroll in the accredited K12 International Academy. Annual costs range from $5,000 to $7,000.

School Committee unlikely to change decision

School Committee members said Wednesday they have received hundreds of emails from concerned families.

“I can barely read them because everyone has a story to tell about their child and how they are so benefited by virtual schools. It’s heartbreaking,” said Doyle, who still hopes the School Committee will reconsider and submit an application to the state by a March 25 deadline. It would give the district more time to make a cost benefit analysis and weigh the pros and cons of continuing the school.

Lunt, the School Committee chairman, said that although he sympathizes with families’ concerns, the law forced the committee’s hand. Greenfield was not interested in participating in creating a new state-run virtual school, he said.

And a clause in the law that would have allowed one year for the school to “wind down,” was removed from the bill sometime last year, he said.

He hopes tonight’s meeting will produce the “best possible plan to help families during the transition period forced on us by (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.)”

Mayor Martin, a voting member of the committee, said the vote is over, and it’s time for the school district to focus its attention on other things, like next year’s school budget, construction projects, teacher evaluations and collective bargaining agreement.

The four other School Committee members — Maryelen Calderwood, Marcia Day, Daryl Essensa and Francia Wisnewski — can attend tonight’s subcommittee meeting as public observers but are legally not allowed to speak or deliberate in any way, said Lunt.

Only Wisnewski indicated she may be in attendance. Calderwood and Essensa said they aren’t going, and Day could not be reached for comment.

“The vote is over, it’s time to help the families to transition,” said Calderwood. “MAVA was never guaranteed to go on forever. The legislation has been pending for a long time. This should not have been a surprise.”

Wisnewski said that the publicly elected committee made the decision that best supported Greenfield schools.

But “this is not the end of the conversation,” she said. “We will continue supporting our school district in finding inclusive opportunities for children and families. As we know, this is a big issue across the commonwealth.”

Essensa, who had argued to submit an application to the state to give the district more time to weigh its options, said she doesn’t think it would be appropriate for the committee to change its vote.

But she does support helping families of all the online students find schools for their students next fall.

“The law ... changed a lot of things for us, but the law didn’t change our responsibility to our students,” she said. “We always committed as a board to support students in the transition if we chose to (close the school). I’m still committed to it.”

The subcommittee will meet in the Greenfield High School library at 6:30 p.m.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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