By Jamie Wiggan
As the board prepares to approve a sweeping financial recovery plan next month, Sto-Rox officials are looking to stave off tuition payments to external charter and cyber schools by boosting the district’s in-house cyber programming.
Sto-Rox launched its cyber academy – Virtual Viking – during the summer of 2020, while the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing and the district had quickly pivoted from a paper-dominant to computer-dominant teaching model.
A year later, the board hired longtime Sto-Rox educator Pam Clawson as a full-time director to help develop the program further. Reporting to the board Feb. 17, Clawson said the academy could play a role in reversing the district's longstanding financial woes.
“I really do think it’s contributing to the district,” she said. “It’s giving options to families, it’s keeping kids in the district.”
School officials say the district is being hammered by outflows of students to neighboring charter and cyber schools, and strategies for attracting them back to Sto-Rox feature heavily in discussions about balancing the finances.
So far during her outreach efforts, Clawson said she’s found that many families of students enrolled in charter and cyber systems were unaware Sto-Rox offered an in-house option.
Clawson said she hopes to grow the academy by 6-8 students by the end of the spring semester. According to business manager Paul Sroka, this could equate to a saving of around $88,000 to $100,000 per year for regular students, and considerably more for any students in special education programming.
District officials estimate Sto-Rox, which currently enrolls around 1,200 students, expends nearly a third of its total budget on cyber and charter tuition. The school system has been dealing with snowballing fund balance deficits for the past 10 years and is currently in a state-mandated recovery program.
The board plans to approve a long-ranging recovery plan in March before forwarding it to the Pennsylvania Department of Education for final approval.
Clawson said the Virtual Viking Academy currently has around 140 students enrolled throughout grades K-12. About 10-15 of those are students who left the district to enroll in other cyber or charter options and have since returned to Sto-Rox.
Looking forward, Clawson said she’s exploring ways to develop in-person social opportunities to complement online teaching and is considering introducing a hybrid option for students who want to combine virtual and offline learning.
“I think that the cyber program can bring kids back into the community,” she said. “We have the potential to really offer the families what they need…and we can offer them that here.”