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The state’s first-ever charter schools are readying for fall

During her years at Parkersburg High in Wood County’s school district, Cheryl Stahle was lauded for her work as a classroom teacher and language arts specialist.

Come fall, she’ll again be at the head of the class — in cyberspace.

Stahle this month was hired as principal of the West Virginia Virtual Academy, an online charter school that launches in August, with an enrollment open to students from across the Mountain State.

She most recently worked as a teacher, academic coach and administrative leader at another such school in Pennsylvania.

Charter schools aren’t beholden to regulations and statutes regarding education. That doesn’t mean, though, Stehle said, that their academic enterprise is shoddy or sways too much to the free-form side.

In fact, she said, a charter school in the Mountain State means academic opportunities that might not be available otherwise.

“As someone who has spent years in virtual education, I’m incredibly confident that our students will receive a high-quality, interactive education delivered by West Virginia-certified teachers,” she said.

“Our school will also give students a rare opportunity to combine their academics with career-path programs that set them up for work opportunities following graduation.”

Like it or not, Stehle’s hiring and the formation of her school heralds a new direction in education here following legislation that opened the door in 2019. Four schools, counting Stahle’s, didn’t exist — until now.

Roll call

At the end of June, the West Virginia Virtual Academy had 204 students enrolled, according to numbers it reported to the state Professional Charter Schools Board.

Virtual Prep Academy, another online charter, was expecting about that many, counting applications that were still coming in, its officials said.

The state’s two brick-and-mortar charters were also reporting steady enrollment during that same time frame — with more than 300 students committed to the Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy in Jefferson County.

In Morgantown, the West Virginia Academy, which will operate out of a building once used as a research facility for WVU on Chestnut Ridge Road, was showing an enrollment of 458.

That school and its reactions from the local district is in many ways at the core of the charter school debate here.

Charter school math

Monongalia County’s school district was recently named No. 1 in the state by a New York City marketing and data analysis firm, which based the ranking on the county’s course offerings, graduation rates and teacher pay, among other factors.

Because of traditional voter support at the polls, the district is bolstered by an excess levy for education that brings in an additional $30 million to its coffers.

Levy dollars mean enrichment camps in the summer, more field trips in the fall and unique classes such as conversational Mandarin that begin as early as elementary school.

Mon’s Board of Education in May passed a $145 million operating budget, but that was with a caveat.

At that time, 350 students had already enrolled in charter schools — with 250 of them signed on at the West Virginia Academy.

The state allocates around $4,300 per student in its funding formula, but if a student goes out of the system, those dollars go with him.

For Monongalia, under those numbers, that means a loss nearly $2 million in the funding formula, with the meter and calculator most likely still running — as final enrollments won’t be set until fall.

Losing that much, all at once, won’t be easy to absorb, Superintendent Eddie Campbell Jr., said, no matter how well-off Mon’s district appears.

In the business of education, he said, money is relevant.

You have to spend, he said, to make good on the investment, which, in this case, are the students who occupy the school buildings in the county for most of the year.

“It’s not like it’s a fund we’re sitting on,” the superintendent said previously.

“Every dime has been allocated,” he said. “Every dime is why we’ve had the success we’ve had, and why we can offer the things we do.”

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