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Greenfield School Committee gives virtual school green light — again

The committee voted 5-2 to draft a proposal to the state to transition its 3-year-old virtual innovation school into a new state-authorized virtual school. The committee has until April 22 to write, approve and submit the proposal — which is, essentially, a blueprint for how the school will run — and state officials have offered to help and answer questions during the process. Although there are still many decisions to make and steps to take before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education can officially sign off on the school in June, there is now a strong likelihood that Greenfield will continue hosting the only virtual school in Massachusetts.

There has been confusion surrounding a new law that is forcing the district to transition the Massachusetts Virtual Academy — which uses the Internet to teach 470 students, including a dozen from Greenfield — into a new state-authorized virtual school by July 1.

Many committee members had been under the impression that they would be setting up a new school run by the state, something they did not believe they had the authority to do. But state officials have assured the local school board that they want to work with them to open the first Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School, and that the process would be a learning experience for both parties. Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education, fielded questions for an hour from the committee at Thursday’s meeting. He said it will be a local school, with more state oversight. The state is “not expecting every question to be answered” in Greenfield’s proposal, he said.

“We’d expect the conversation to continue right up until the opening of school and beyond,” Wulfson said.

His arguments were able to convince three members to change their minds and vote in favor of continuing a virtual school.

Members Doris Doyle and Daryl Essensa had been the only two to previously vote to submit a proposal, and they upheld that vote Thursday.

Day had voted against submitting a proposal in February because she had believed that the district would be giving up local control of its school. The clarification from Wulfson changed her mind, she said.

Doyle has been a longtime supporter of the virtual school and what it offers for students who cannot attend brick-and-mortar schools. She said that the information she heard from Wulfson about the state’s willingness to work with Greenfield only supported her opinion.

Essensa said she supported the motion because the school board had a responsibility to all of the 470 students who were enrolled in Massachusetts Virtual Academy, a Greenfield public school.

“These are our students. These families are our families,” she said.

Lunt had long been in favor of the virtual school, but had voted “no” last month because he didn’t think the committee should create a state-run school. New clarifications on the law and the state’s willingness to work with the local district shifted his opinion back to favoring the operation of a virtual school, he said.

Martin also reversed his decision from last month. He spoke of the possible benefits it would have for the town — which include the free virtual education for local students and potential jobs if curriculum company K12 sets up a local headquarters here. He said that the district should continue what it started: running a school that could serve students across the state who need it.

Maryelen Calderwood and Francia Wisnewski were the two dissenting votes on Thursday.

Calderwood, who has voted against the virtual school since its inception, said she opposes initiatives that keep students out of the classroom for their primary education. And she said that information presented by Wulfson made moving ahead even more of a concern because it is unclear what exactly this new school will be and to what degree it will resemble a charter school.

“I’m not in the business of opening up charter schools,” she said. “(And) I never dreamed I’d be bargaining a contract with a corporation (for-profit curriculum company K12) for educational services.” Wisnewski, who extended her compassion to the families of students in the school, said there were still too many questions for her to support continuing the virtual school. She wondered how Greenfield taxpayers would be affected, who would choose the new board members, who will govern the virtual school and if test scores would continue to be low.

Future questions to discuss Test scores, K12’s involvement and financial implications for the town were all discussed at length on Thursday — during the public comment period, the question-and-answer session with Wulfson and the committee’s deliberation.

Lauded by educators, parents and some members for its ability to adapt to the individual student’s learning styles, K12 has been simultaneously criticized by other members for making a profit on public education and for producing low test scores.

Martin said that the school has cost the town nothing, and that K12 has provided discounted services over the past three years. The school was funded by tuition from districts that sent students, similar to the School Choice model, but was capped at $5,000 per student. The proposal for a new school will likely call for increased tuition to fully cover administrative costs.

Three weeks ago, it seemed that Greenfield’s virtual school future would be over by July 1.

But families of the school’s students engaged in an advocacy campaign that reached from Greenfield to Beacon Hill.

Through letters, emails, online petitions and videos and during subcommittee meetings, they argued that their children could not attend brick-and-mortar schools. Because no other virtual schools can form until at least the 2014-15 school year, families feared their best and only option for free cyber schooling would soon disappear unless Greenfield went forward under the new arrangement.

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