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Another 'virtual' school proposed for Valley; two, local educational collaboratives join forces for pitch

The Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services, which serves public schools in Hampshire and Franklin counties, is working with the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative on a joint application for a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Virtual School.

The collaboratives are the only group from western Massachusetts vying for one of two available certificates, which the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will award in February. The state received six letters of intent by its 5 p.m. deadline Friday, with other interested groups including the Boston Public Schools and a number of collaboratives and districts in central Massachusetts.

The locally proposed school would mean competition for the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School, which has been the state’s only cyber school since 2010 and became the first state-authorized one in July. The virtual school enrolled 470 students last year, including some from towns throughout the collaboratives’ coverage areas in western Massachusetts.

Start with 100 students

Officials from the collaboratives say the proposed “Mattie Knight Commonwealth Virtual School” would serve kindergarten through grade 12. It would aim to have 100 full-time students by the time classes begin in fall 2014 and would try to double in size the following year.

Officials declined to reveal specific details about the school’s financial plan — such as if member districts would receive a discount to send their student to the virtual school — until the official application is sent in later this fall.

The idea for the school began with a desire to further satisfy the needs of special education students and those who are incarcerated or residing in state-run institutions, said Joan Schuman, executive director for the Collaborative for Educational Services.

Casey Daigle-Matos, digital learning manager for the Collaborative for Educational Services, said the school will also look to serve the following populations: students who have been placed at risk, are physically challenged, bullied, hospitalized, expelled, are above traditional school age, have a child, are English language learners or those who move at a faster pace than their peers.

The school, named after a famous 19th-century inventor who spent some of her life in Springfield, has been discussed informally for over a year, she said.

The collaboratives ramped up planning this summer and formed five work groups tasked with assessing areas of need, evaluating the school’s education model, determining its business model, choosing a curriculum partner and forming its governance structure.

The collaboratives put out a call for curriculum proposals and are accepting applications through this week. They will then bring in curriculum experts and ask some students and parents to test the material out, before choosing their partner by Sept. 30.

Both collaboratives have offered virtual learning for their districts in the past, connecting brick-and-mortar students with specialized courses for a fee. Those arrangements will continue, but officials felt that pursuing a full virtual school was the natural next step.

“We’re building something we hope is a response to the stated desires of public school leaders, not building something with the idea that it’s in reaction to what already exists,” said Anne McKenzie, executive director of Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative.

Schuman added that the collaboratives will be “proposing an array of options from several vendors, not just one vendor, as well as opportunities for local faculty to design courses that may be in addition to regular curriculum.”

“Greenfield offers only one vendor and, of course, under the new requirements no longer runs the virtual school,” she said.

Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins, whose central office is being paid to continue working for the virtual school, said she was unaware before Friday of the collaboratives’ intentions.

“I am not surprised that there are other groups wanting to design and start one of the new Commonwealth Virtual Schools,” she said. “I am somewhat surprised that a local organization where Greenfield is a member district has not shared its proposal to assure we are not going to serve the same students.”

Ed Berlin, chairman of the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School’s board of trustees, said the eventual presence of other virtual schools won’t change the trustees’ mission of making the Greenfield school successful. The schools may even be able to serve different student populations, he said. “There are a lot of unmet needs of children in the commonwealth that we don’t address, (like) children who are incarcerated or children who have been suspended,” said Berlin.

“I’m hopeful that for this application, (by the collaboratives) really looked at what we’ve done and are trying to meet the needs of students we couldn’t address,” he said.

State stance

A law passed in January gave the state the power to award virtual school certificates. It will accept proposals in October and then the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote to grant up to two certificates in February. Selected schools would open in July with classes starting in the fall.

Potential applicants needed to send the state a letter by Friday, so there is a maximum of six groups that can now apply for the certificates.

The list includes both the Boston Public Schools and the The Education Cooperative — a collaborative that serves districts to the southwest of Boston.

There are three groups in central Massachusetts who can apply for certificates.

The North Middlesex Regional School District and Mill Pond School, in Westborough, each sent in letters.

And a large group of collaboratives and school districts in the central part of the state is vying for a joint application. The members of that group include the CAPS Education Collaborative, the FLLAC Collaborative, Ashburnham-Westminster, Fitchburg, Gardner, Leominster, Narragansett and Winchendon.

The state department has increased oversight over virtual schools and has been working on a number of additional regulations for the schools, which it will release this fall.

One advantage that collaboratives could have over district-run virtual schools, including Greenfield, is their ability to more easily meet a local student requirement. At least 5 percent of a virtual school’s students must be from the local district or districts.

In order for the proposed Mattie Knight Commonwealth Virtual School to expand to 200 students in its second year, it would require the attendance of only 10 students from across the collaboratives’ 27 member districts.

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