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First, only virtual school in Mass. will be closed

Greenfield committee votes to end online experiment

The state’s first virtual school will shut its digital doors this summer after the Greenfield School Committee voted last week not to submit a proposal to run the Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield for another year.

The academy opened in 2010 and serves about 470 students in kindergarten through eighth grade from all across the Commonwealth. It will close on June 30, according to committee members.

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A new state law, signed in January, which establishes Commonwealth virtual schools, would have required the locally run academy to be overseen by the state, like a charter school.

One of the district’s major objections was that the School Committee would no longer have had direct oversight of the school.

“It would be an autonomous school governed by a separate committee that would not be publicly elected,” said committee member Marcia Day, who voted in favor of not submitting the proposal to the state. “I really feel like it’s important for public education to be under local control with school committee members who are elected directly.”

The vote, taken last Thursday, was 5-2 in favor of not submitting a proposal.

One dissenting member said she felt the district should have taken more time to consider its options — the state’s deadline for a decision from the district was not until March 25.

“We put a lot of hard work into a new adventure. This wasn’t easy to do,” said committee vice chairwoman Daryl Essensa. “I’m still kind of blown away that we didn’t take just a few more weeks to try to inform ourselves so that we could make the best decision for Greenfield, for our students, for our employees, for our district.”

Currently, the academy is overseen by the Greenfield School Committee, which partners with K12 Inc., a Virginia company that runs public virtual schools.

According to a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Greenfield academy is the only operating virtual school in Massachusetts.

“We are disappointed that Greenfield won’t take advantage of the opportunity to submit an application so the virtual school can continue,” said spokesman JC Considine. “We were confident there were no insurmountable obstacles to Greenfield. It is unfortunate that the School Committee, if it had concerns, did not give us the opportunity to discuss those concerns and work with them.”

Committee members said they were not sure where the school’s students would end up.

“I have no idea,” said Essensa, “and that is a concern.”

Students at the academy communicate with state-certified teachers online, by e-mail, telephone, direct instruction, and monthly outings, according to the school’s website. A parent or other adult serves as the student’s “learning coach.”

The virtual academy was envisioned as an alternative for students who could not attend brick-and-mortar classrooms, including students with medical conditions, those who had issues with bullying, or who were training for competitive arts or sports events.

It has been life-changing for Krysten Callina’s 13-year-old son Seth, who has attended the academy since 2011. Seth has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, she said, and while he does fine academically, the academy’s online format was perfect to help him deal with his anxiety and social issues.

“He didn’t need a classroom that was for kids who were more severe,” said Callina, of Somerset. “But the support that he needed was not available in his local school.”

Seth gets his work done quickly in the virtual classroom, she said, which gives him time to work on his social skills. He made one of his best friends through the school, said Callina, and now they go on family vacations together.

“He’s a whole different kid, an entirely different kid,” she said.

But some are happy to see the school go.

“It’s a road to privatizing public education. And it is wrong,” said Greenfield School Committee member Maryelen Calderwood, who voted against submitting the proposal. “Is it wrong for kids to want to supplement their school work with virtual learning? Not at all. . . . But the way it is now is a private corporation making a lot of money on public money, and there’s very little oversight.”

The School Committee vote is final, said Calderwood, and it should not come as a surprise that a virtual school that began as an experiment is closing. The legislation, she said, has been in the works for a year.

Still, those who have found a home at the school will be sorry to see it go.

“I’m really sad this could be the end,” said Callina.

Globe correspondent Sarah N. Mattero contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.
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