The Punxsutawney Spirit
Brookville school board discusses Bright Space offerings
BROOKVILLE — The Brookville school board discussed continuing the early dismissal Fridays for the 2022-2023 school year, which then led into a deeper discussion on the district’s Bright Space offerings at Monday’s meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Erich May said that the district is required to hold 900 hours of instruction time a year for elementary students and 990 hours for secondary students. He said the district is running at a surplus with those hours, detailing the following: Northside Elementary, 972 hours and five minutes; Pinecreek Elementary, 977 hours and 35 minutes; Hickory Grove Elementary, 1,057 hours and 38 minutes; and the junior and senior high school, 1,007 and 20 minutes. He said the district was doing halfday Fridays one year ago after coming back from COVID-19 closures.
He said the district was still getting used to the Bright Space online learning program, and they had more students choose to stay online for months and semesters at a time. He said a survey to parents was sent out a year ago asking their opinion on continuing half-day Fridays. He said in that survey, 58 percent of parents said they were in favor of continuing the policy. He said that was one of the reasons the district recommended a new policy for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year of a two-hour early dismissal on Fridays. He said a new survey regarding the two-hour early dismissal Fridays was sent to parents at the end of March. He said 66.1 percent of parents were in favor of the policy, four times the number who were opposed. He said the policy brings with it numerous advantages.
“It has various advantages for families, which I do not need to enumerate.
For us, there are advantages from an instructional and academic standpoint. The most celebrated school systems in the world give teachers way more preparation time than American teachers receive. I think there is something to be said about giving teachers more time for planning, preparation and collaboration. This model allows for more meetings. We are inclined to continue to offer the remote learning, virtual option at least at the secondary level, at grades 7-12. That is another reason to continue with the modified schedule,” May said.
Dr. Fred Park asked what would happen with the elementary students. May clarified that there were two issues being discussed: the two-hour early dismissals on Fridays, and offering Bright Space to students at the elementary and secondary levels.
“We feel as an administrative team that our seventh- and eighthgraders can handle, manage, respond well, and learn and grow online. We have mixed feelings as an administrative team about the younger students being home all day online. I have tried to separate these issues to some extent. I don’t want the clock question to drive the questions about what is best for the kids who are online,” May said.
He said the administrative team has been reaching out to the families of elementary students who have been online by choice. He said there were a couple hundred kids online by choice in fall 2020, and that number came down the following year and is steadily decreasing. He said the district has continued to offer the online option to students as young as kindergarten, first grade and second grade.
“Early on, when we were having these conversations, I really fell back on the burger joint analogy. ‘Look, we are really good at making burgers and fries, but ever since we started making these veggie burgers, we have people who want veggie burgers. It’s not what I would eat, but we are going to continue to provide these veggie burgers and we have to provide our teachers time to make these weird black bean patties.’ That was the analogy; this virtual option had opened up a new item on the menu, and we had to leave time in the kitchen to prep that item. I think that the old-fashioned cheeseburger is the best, that coming into the building is what’s best for kids, but we as an admin team want to balance our beliefs about how to best serve those youngest students with what our families and our community want. That’s where we are at. That issue remains unresolved. We know that we want to offer Bright Space to grades 7-12. We are not sure whether we should or will offer an extended online option to kids K-2. Maybe offering it to kids 3-6 is a separate question. The jury’s out,” May said.
Board member Herb McConnell said the district needs to make clear that the reason these options were made available was because of COVID-19. He said they were not required to offer it, and May agreed. May said, however, that there are a dozen cyber charters operating in Pennsylvania. He said those charters were part of the reason the district chose to offer the virtual options, as a way to compete, and they did not want to lose any more students to cyber charters.
“We want Brookville kids to get Brookville diplomas,” May said. He said while the district has successfully brought some students back from cyber charter schools, they have more students signed up for cyber charter schools than they did three years ago.
McConnell suggested examining the options this year and see where the district is headed. He suggested examining ways to pare the options down, like what was suggested for first and second grades. He suggested looking at whether the district could continue to offer the online option in perpetuity.
Board member Matt Park asked what the numbers of elementary kids were choosing online were. Both May and board member Erin Schiafone confirmed that there were 14 Brookville students enrolled in Bright Space and using Brookville courses for instruction. Schiafone noted that each student could cost the district $5,000 to $20,000 if they lost them to cyber charters. May said that if they lost 10 students in first grade to cyber charters, and if they stayed in cyber for 10 years, they would cost the district $1 million. McConell said a lot of what they were discussing is being discussed in the public square pertaining to parents choice.
“I think there are a lot of things that people are discussing now about parents having that ability to choose how they want to educate their kids. In that case, I feel less responsible there for their decision. I think we should still look at it, and look at what we want for those kids and any kids later on,” McConnell said.
Schiafone said they would have a difficult time explaining to taxpayers that they are spending up to $1 million of their money on kids who don’t attend Brookville Area School District, when they had an option that could save the taxpayers that money.
McConnell said that fact had never been exactly presented and they are required to finance students seeking cyber charters. He said if the district wanted to absorb those costs some other way, the board would have to look at that, but felt that was not possible right now.
“If we believe in what we are doing, then that’s what we should sell,” McConnell said.
Board President Don Gill said he thinks the district is selling what they are offering in person and that the administration has made clear numerous times that they want kids in school. He agreed with McConnell that ultimately, the choice whether to send their kids back to school or pursue a cyber option rests with the parents.
“I think the best thing for a kid or parent that is kind of wavering is for them to have that avenue (Bright Space) to get them back in school. It’s never going to be seamless, but if they are in our program, it will be seamless as possible to integrate them back in,” Gill said.
Schiafone said she would prefer everyone be in person, but “I could not look the taxpayers in the face and tell them that we did not offer a program that could convince these kids not to go to a private program. What’s really difficult for teachers is these kids who try cyber charter for a year and decide not to continue in it. When they come back and the cyber curriculum does not line up with ours, that is a nightmare for instruction for our teachers.”
McConnell said he wanted to make it clear that the district is not paying for the Bright Space students tuition and would like to find something to convince those who were using Bright Space that in-person education is better.
Board member Christopher Rhoades asked what was the main driving factor in the students choosing the online option and if the students using Bright Space are more successful using that as opposed to being in the building.
May said there was a greater disparity in academic performance between in-person students and those online, but that gap shrank as the district got better at virtual instruction. He said at this point, one couldn’t tell the difference when looking at the students’ report cards. He said that some students who were not suited for online instruction found this out the hard way and returned to in-person instruction. He said that he thinks everyone would agree that it is easier for a student in 10th grade to do math with a teacher online than it would be for a second-grader. He said in both cases, there will need to be modifications to lessons and assessments. He said that some of the social development that happens in-person for grades K-2 may be just as important. He said the 10th-grader would be more apt to have those social developments than a second-grader would be.
He was hesitant to cite any one example for what motivates students to choose cyber. He said in 2020, some families chose to be online because of anxieties over COVID19. He said the opposite was true a year later, when families chose cyber because they were adamant on not wearing masks. He said sometimes Bright Space fits into their extracurricular schedule better.
“There’s all kinds of reasons people pursue that. It just depends on the parents and the families. Different families are organized in different ways,” May said.
Matt Park asked what the district is doing to bring those kids enrolled in cyber back into Bright Space or back to the building. May said the administration makes calls in the summer to sell what the school district has to offer. May said the things Brookville offers in addition to academics are what set it apart from cyber.
“It makes the arts and athletics that much more important ... Cyber isn’t offering kids breakfast and lunch. I want to make that pitch not only to cyber charter students, but also to homeschool students, which is another demographic that grew out of the pandemic. We really think we provide a top-notch education in a world-class community, and we want everyone to be on board,” May said.
Park said he thinks that’s another good reason to have the Bright Space, to have an avenue to recruit kids back from cyber.
Board member Amanda Mignogna asked if there could be a program put in place for the Bright Space elementary students to visit the schools periodically to get some interaction with other children. May liked the idea and said the district is going to be having move-up days soon. He said he would look into inviting the Bright Space kids to those move-up days. Mignogna said the district could reach out to those kids in regard to the library’s summer reading program. May said he liked the idea.