LEWISTOWN - The Mifflin County School District is breaking tradition to provide more opportunities for local students.
Two new initiatives, the Alpha Program and Mifflin County Online, launched at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. Together, they give students the opportunity to pursue nontraditional education while remaining enrolled in the school district.
"We're able to meet the needs of students who cannot necessarily be in school from eight to three, but still value their education," said Christina Short, Alpha Program administrator.
Sentinel photo by JULIANNE CAHILL
High school students, from left, Devon Miller, Kendra Fike and Cole Schlegel study Nov. 19 at the Alpha Program facility on Pitt Street in Lewistown.
She said Alpha serves students in grades 7 through 12 and combines traditional education through brick-and-mortar schools with online lessons and direct instruction - a collaboration called "blended learning." Program administration works with families to develop educational plans to fit the needs of each student and meet district requirements for core classes and electives.
At this time, the program serves more than 120 students and has moved to a recently renovated building on Pitt Street in Lewistown. Though some of the students' school work can be completed at home, Short said students visit the facility regularly to take exams or receive direct instruction from certified teachers: Hope Palm, English; Judy Waddell, math; and Karen McCurdy and Gretchen Miller, special education.
Blended learning is an opportunity for students to complete their schooling amid other obstacles. Short said students enroll in the program for various reasons - some have family or work responsibilities that prevent them from attending regularly-scheduled classes. Some have health or special learning needs. Others simply feel more comfortable in a self-directed environment.
Sara Scott, of Lewistown, said she enrolled in Alpha after finding that a cyber charter school wasn't the right fit. Since starting at Alpha at the beginning of the year, Scott said she comes to the facility daily and completes her school work independently before going home.
However, there are classes that are difficult to replicate through online or direct one-on-one instruction.
"We try to persuade kids who are in a lab class to go to the school," Short explained.
Blending learning both encourages and allows students to stay in school or come back to school even if there are circumstances preventing them from completing traditional schooling, she said. And since they must meet the same educational requirements as traditional students, Alpha program participants remain MCSD students. By enrolling in the program, students have the benefit of participating in district-run sports, events and extracurricular activities.
A similar program, Mifflin County Online, offers online education customized for the needs of individual students. Michelle Schaaf, Mifflin County Online coordinator, said the program uses a kindergarten through grade 12 curriculum in cooperation with Alpha to provide elective courses at the high school level. However, MCO primarily meets the needs of students in grades K-6.
The biggest misconception regarding online schooling, she said, is that students spend eight hours per day sitting in front of a computer screen. While high school-level courses require more time online, Schaaf said elementary students spend about 20 percent of their school time on the computer and 80 percent offline.
In addition to their work online and at home, students meet regularly with Nicole McClure, elementary online facilitator. McClure said online schooling requires high parental involvement, as well as face-to-face instruction, support and assistance from administrators.
As time goes on, Schaaf and McClure said they expect Mifflin County Online to grow in enrollment. Its beginning in August, along with Alpha, already has made a difference for local students.
Terri Roush, of Lewistown, said her fourth-grade grandson was enrolled in a Christian school before their family lost everything in a house fire. Her grandson has unique educational needs and would not succeed in a traditional school environment, she said, but the family no longer could pay private school tuition.
Roush credited the staff at Mifflin County Online not only for providing her grandson with the individualized instruction he needs, but also for their involvement in contacting and organizing local agencies to help with the family's basic needs.
Roush called the program a "God send" for her family.
Reaching out to local families and providing for their exclusive needs is the goal of both programs.
"Look out there. That's the reason I'm here everyday," Short said, as she motioned at students studying outside her office. " ... that gives me 120-some reasons to be here everyday."
Schaaf agreed, citing the value of meeting the individual needs of every student. With online alternatives to traditional schooling, she said, there is "no reason we shouldn't and can't do that."
"We have some awesome success stories, and we only started in August," McClure said.
Already, she said Alpha and Mifflin County Online have made an impact.
For more information about enrollment in the Alpha Program, call Christine Short at 447-2655 or visit www.mcsdk12.org. To learn more about Mifflin County Online, contact Michelle Schaaf at firstname.lastname@example.org or Nicole McClure, email@example.com.