DUBOIS — The Com- monwealth Connections Academy (CCA) hosted a back-to-school picnic for students in Jefferson County at the Edgewood Family Fun Center last Tuesday.
The event was one of eight such back-to-school parties being held across the state by the school, with 32 planned for the two-week span.
The purpose of the event was to kick off the start of a new school year, as well as to allow students and parents the opportunity to meet their peers and teachers in person.
"We wanted to get together and try to develop community spirit," said CCA Community Involvement Coordinator Paula Hearns.
CCA is a cyberschool conforming to many of the traditional features of the cyberschool environment — high-tech virtual classrooms, partially self-determined scheduling and semi-regular field trips to meet online friends and teachers.
However, with CCA, there's a twist — the school is public.
CCA is a public cyber charter school offering an education to students throughout the state, from kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. It has more than 125 teachers to conduct classes from one of CCA's six learning centers across Pennsylvania.
The lessons are broadcast to a current crop of more than 6,000 students, at home and with a learning coach.
Its purpose is to combine the expertise and accountability of public education with the parental involvement of homeschooling and the flexibility of a technology-backed curriculum.
Because it is a public school, CCA's services are offered free of charge to students and their families, with no costs for tuition, fees or supplies.
CCA divides the state of Pennsylvania into regions for the sake of organizing its services. Jefferson County is located in the Northwest zone.
Education at CCA is conducted as a mixture of scheduled learning and independent, self-determined and self-motivated progress on the student's part.
"Students have a set daily schedule, but when they do it is up to them," said Don Sheare, a 12th grade consumer math teacher with CCA.
He said that students often have a certain amount of work to complete on a daily or weekly basis, in addition to attending virtual class sessions, which are held a minimum of twice a week per class.
However, the students can decide at what point in the day they would like to complete that work — a child who doesn't function as well in the morning, for example, can save it for the evening. Students can even spread work across an entire day if they would prefer to have extended breaks between study sessions. Those choices are entirely up to the students and their families.
The virtual classes are high-tech, offering capabilities such as interactive whiteboards, videos, chat abilities that are regulated by the teacher and other features.
Sheare said that the system benefits the teachers and the students.
The teacher benefit derives from having no classroom discipline issues with which to concern themselves.
"You don't have to worry about sending a kid to the principal's office," he said. "You can focus entirely on the learning."
And for students, Sheare said, "Kids get attention they might not always get in a public (brick-and-mortar) school."
He added, "How many times in high school could you have a problem with your homework and just call the teacher at home?"
"I like CCA because of the flexibility and availability of the teachers," said parent Tonja Agey, who has two sons enrolled in the online classes.
"I don't know about everybody else," said Community Coordinator Tracy Korb, "but it's the best thing that ever happened for me and my kids."
CCA continually updates its online platform based on feedback from students and parents. The lessons themselves come equipped with feedback features so that changes can be made in the future.
CCA also holds regular field trips, such as the one taken to the Edgewood Family Fun Center, to act as socialization and learning opportunities, in addition to being meet and greets between teachers, students and parents.
The Northwest region has four CCA staff members acting as community coordinators. Each one is required to plan one field trip per month, but they can do more than that as desired. Said field trips try to combine fun with a learning element.
At the Edgewood Family Fun Center, stopwatches were used to record students' time and speed as they skated around a roller rink, after which Sheare calculated how fast they were going and how far they went. He also taught them a few unusual tricks for solving difficult math problems.
The field trips are often tailored to students who live in the region in which they are held. However, CCA events are open to any students across the state who wish to attend, provided they are willing to make the drive.
CCA has been operating in Pennsylvania for 11 years and also offers services in over 20 other states. It is free, but the student must be a legal resident of the state.
"We are a public school, and we are fully accredited by the state of Pennsylvania," Hearns said. "We just don't have the walls."
CCA is currently enrolling for the 2012-2013 school year.