Online school bids are sought

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore County public school system is soliciting bids from companies to provide an online instruction program that was not included in the budget for the coming school year.

The school system, which tested a pilot version of online instruction this past school year, has not decided whether it will offer it this fall. But it is soliciting bidders to "explore the range of services and prices and programs that are out there," said Kara E.B. Calder, a county schools spokeswoman.

"This is a first step to find out what is possible," Calder said of the bid solicitation that was posted June 12. "In order to move forward at any point, we need more information."

Schools officials had requested $2 million to continue offering the online instruction and nearly double enrollment in the program, but the county's budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, did not include money to do so.

In a recent interview, school board President JoAnn C. Murphy said it was unfortunate that the online instruction program was not funded, but that there was "sentiment among board members to revisit" the issue and see if it might be possible to offer it to at least the 106 students who were enrolled in the pilot program.

Because the school system's budget has been set, paying for an online instruction program would involve shifting funds from another program, something the board has not discussed, Murphy said.

The school system is accepting bids from companies that can provide an online program to about 200 students, who would be able to "take an entire course, from any Internet-connected computer, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," according to contract specification documents. The school system documents indicate a preference for a company that has at least three years of experience in "developing, providing, installing and servicing K-12 full-time and part-time Web-based virtual education."

Some parents who were recently notified that their children would not have the online option available to them in the fall said they are optimistic that officials will find a way to continue the program and were encouraged by news of the bid solicitation.

"I know the program is not solidified yet," said Kia Drake-Cummings, a Randallstown-area parent who enrolled five of her seven children in the school system's pilot program after several years of home-schooling them. "We are hopeful. We know that something is going on."

Drake-Cummings, who taught in Talbot County public schools during the 1990s, has been among the dozens of parents who have been lobbying the school system, county government officials and local legislators to find the money to maintain a well-structured version of online education.

"We don't want a glorified correspondence program," she said, adding that the pilot program was "perfect."

She has organized parents and students, who attended school board meetings to rally support for the online program by waving fliers and speaking during the public comment time.

Drake-Cummings and other parents have said they will return to home-schooling rather than enroll in a physical Baltimore County school, if the online program is discontinued.

The pilot program, called the Baltimore County Virtual Instruction Program, was offered in conjunction with Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that provided administrators, teachers and materials for free. Nearly all the 106 students enrolled last year were home-schoolers.

Barbara Dreyer, Connection Academy's president and chief executive officer, said the company plans to submit a contract bid that is mindful of the school system's budget constraints.

"We're going to be sharpening our pencils," Dreyer said. "We view this as almost an extension of the pilot. We are going to be very aggressive to make this possible for the county school system."

In launching its pilot - believed to be the state's first virtual instruction program - Baltimore County joined a national trend of public school systems offering more online education options. The movement has gained momentum in the past five years, with at least 15 states offering some form of virtual schooling, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Confident of virtual instruction's potential and satisfied with the pilot program, county school officials requested $2 million for next year to hire their own teachers and staff.

But County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s budget did not fund any new education programs. In his annual budget message, Smith said the county is in "the midst of a very difficult economic time," and that his priority for the school system focused on maintaining existing staff positions and programs.

Parents criticized what they regarded as the county's shortsightedness, saying the school system should not pass up the chance to be a model for the state in online education.

Amy Sparks of Rosedale, whose two 14-year-old daughters - Carol-Anne and Sarah Sparks - were enrolled in the pilot program after having been home-schooled since sixth grade, said her daughters' grades have improved through the program and their enthusiasm for school has been re-energized because of it.

"It's working for my children," Sparks said of her daughters, who have completed ninth grade. "And when you find a program that works, you want to stick with it. You don't want to lose it."

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