Pasco's online classroom alternative offered

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 27, 2013 

The Pasco School District has joined the ranks of districts offering students an alternative to a traditional classroom.

District officials launched internet Pasco Academy of Learning, or iPAL, at the end of January, according to information provided Tuesday to the Pasco School Board. Twenty-five students already have enrolled.

The district has lost about 300 students to similar programs in Richland and Kennewick in recent years, and iPAL is meant to reclaim some of them -- along with state education dollars. District officials said the program still is being tweaked but fills a need.

"It provides some flexibility and options for our families," said Superintendent Saundra Hill.

iPAL is an online course program where students take the bulk of their courses at home and away from a school but are able to visit a learning lab to get one-on-one help, said Mark Garrett, the district's information systems director.

The district contracts with a private company to provide the online courses but the district is ultimately responsible for student learning, with student records tied to what would be their "home" school and district employees working with students.

The district has to meet specific requirements for students enrolled in iPAL but does receive money for each student enrolled. Similar programs in other districts include Three Rivers HomeLink in Richland and the Mid-Columbia Parent Partnership in Kennewick.

Garrett said iPAL appeals to a variety of students and families, from student athletes and parents wanting more of a role in their child's education to students with social anxiety in a traditional school environment.

The program is only available to middle and high school students but Garrett said the district is looking at ways to expand it to the elementary school level.

Board member Rubn Peralta said he was concerned how iPAL students could negatively affect their "home" school if they struggle in their studies, despite the real possibility they'll never set foot in the school they're connected to.

"That teacher or that school is going to get dinged," he said.

Garrett said such alternative learning programs do bend the norm and Hill said there could be unforeseen issues but the district will address them as they come along.

Also Tuesday:

w Board member Bill Leggett said he was frustrated at the new teacher and principal evaluation systems being implemented across the state.

The new evaluation systems are scheduled to go into effect next school year and are described as being more complex than current ways teachers are evaluated and are still being changed by state officials.

"I'm really concerned that we at the local level are losing local control of our schools," he said.

Hill said she agreed with Leggett's concerns and had fought the legislation that created the new system.

"This is a heavy lift. It's a major shift," she said.

However, the new evaluation system is set to start and the district needs to be prepared for it, Hill said. Michelle Whitney, the district's human resources director, said the district does have some control over the data used to evaluate teachers.

Regardless, Leggett said he still wanted to have a conversation about the new evaluation system and how concerns could be communicated to the state.

"As a former principal, I just can't imagine putting more work on principals and teachers than they already have," he said.

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