The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

July 29, 2012

Church continues learning center with new cyber school

JOHNSTOWN — An after-school program, summer feeding program and now a cyber school learning site are all part of the “Destiny Outreach” mission to help children from Johnstown’s troubled neighborhoods, Pastor Joseph McGauley III said.

“It was a vision the Lord gave me to start working with the kids,” McGauley said at Jefferson Memorial First Born Church, 325 William Penn Ave., in the Prospect section of Johnstown.

The outreach started with an after-school program, offering help with homework, some activities and a snack.

He added the summer feeding program, which also includes activities, socialization and learning opportunities. Destiny Outreach receives a small reimbursement from federal food initiatives for both programs.

Those programs led to the cyber school, he said.

“We started feeding them, helping them with homework. We learned some of these kids could barely read. We had eighth-graders signing their name backward. The letters were backward.”

Last year, McGauley and his church’s Destiny Outreach organization teamed with upstart Frontier Virtual Charter High School. Local students were enrolled in the Philadelphia-based charter school and provided with a study location and backup support in the church.

Financially troubled Frontier furloughed its principal and all of its faculty last spring, struggling through the school year with substitutes before agreeing earlier this month to shut down completely.

The Department of Education pressed for the closure after an investigation.

“Over the past year, Frontier fell short in providing its students with the core academic programs parents and students expect of our public schools,” state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said at the time.

McGauley said teaming up with an unproven, underfunded cyber school may have been a mistake, but the Johnstown students were the exception to Frontier’s failure.

“The kids here were doing fine,” McGauley said. “The parents are pleased.”

With Frontier’s shutdown, McGauley immediately started looking for a new sponsoring cyber school for the Prospect learning center. He found Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, based in West Chester.

Normally, students are expected to work from computers at their homes, attending online classes and completing assignments, said Julie Zollo, western Pennsylvania coordinator for the school. But there are advantages to community-based learning centers, she added.

“We call them ‘bricks and clicks,’ ” she said at the Jefferson Memorial church. “The idea is that students go to the site. They have a community feel and socialization. It is promoting learning in a community setting.”

But like most cyber schools in the state, Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School did not meet expectations last year, the Education Department reported. It has agreed to terms of a corrective action plan for this year.

The problem, Greater Johnstown Schools Superintendent Gerald Zahorchak said, is that cyber schools don’t limit themselves to students who have the maturity and personality to thrive in an independent study environment. Although he thinks learning centers like Jefferson Memorial may help, he is disappointed to see tuition money leaving the district.

Pennsylvania’s public school districts are required to pay charter schools for each district student enrolled. The schools pay at the same tuition rate they charge out-of-district students to attend. For Greater Johnstown, that’s $9,000 a year.

“We don’t have enough revenue to operate,” Zahorchak said, “and we have $1.2 million going to charter schools.”

He estimates that it costs about $3,000 a year for a cyber school to educate each student.

As an alternative, Greater Johnstown has set up its own cyber-enrollment option, allowing students to study at home and still receive a Greater Johnstown High School diploma. Zahorchak said he is disappointed McGauley didn’t look into offering a support center for the local cyber school.

McGauley said his is confident that Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School will provide a good alternative for local students.

“They are going to get a good education,” McGauley said. “It goes better when your child is in a site like ours. You can’t leave a 14-year-old or a 12-year-old at home all day with a computer. We give them the hours and we give them the attention.”

At Jefferson Memorial, children won’t be bullied or hear a lot of “cussing,” McGauley said.

“You’re not going to be afraid to send your child to the house of God to learn,” he said.

While McGauley believes Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School will benefit local students now, he hopes to provide a locally based alternative school soon. Preliminary designs have been completed for a school building on the former Washington Elementary property in Prospect.

“My dream is still to open up a charter school – a bricks and mortar school,” he said. “We need a school here.”


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