Question and answer with Rebecca Leitzell, Bellefonte Area cyber education coordinator
By Brit Milazzo
Public relations, BASD
Question: What is BeLA?
Answer: It stands for Bellefonte eLearning Academy. It’s our cyber education program available for students in grades 3 through 12, and gives them an opportunity to have a different learning environment from the traditional brick and mortar setting.
Q: Why start at third grade, instead of sooner or later?
A: We’ve been looking to expand, K-12. We haven’t found a program that meets the needs for kindergarten, first and second grades in terms of curriculum and participation where students will be successful, but we are looking to expand.
Q: How has the program changed since its inception (in 2009)?
A: It started as a very small program with very few students and it has definitely grown throughout the past 10 years. We offered it only to high school students when it was first initiated and that has grown to now include middle school students and elementary school students, which started in 2016. We have expanded curriculum, changed vendors, enhanced expectations and rules – many of those things include making it more of a blended experience for students. So, if students like to participate in classes we do not offer online, then they can go into the school and take those classes.
Q: When you talk about a “blended experience,” that actually means going to school physically and virtually?
A: Yes, as long as a course is not available for a student online, then they can absolutely go to school and take a class. That includes having the opportunity to take AP (Advanced Placement) courses, classes through College in High School with the University of Pittsburgh or other classes with the option of getting credit through different universities. They may also take electives and attend Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology.
Q: And when you talk about a “vendor,” is that an outside company you work with?
A: We use a third-party provider. We currently use Odysseyware Academy for the majority of our classes. We went with Odysseyware curriculum because of the rigor and integrity of the courses. We felt their program was most aligned to what we have here in the district. They provide their own teachers of record who are certified teachers in the state of Pennsylvania. They provide numerous academic supports, including online office hours, an academic hotline and virtual blackboard. One thing that is different with BeLA than other cyber programs is students have the opportunity to come in here to the district to get additional help and work one-on-one with a real person.
Q: How many students participate in BeLA?
A: Last year we had over 50 students that went through the program throughout the year. Some students will start and then say, “this isn’t for me,” and will return to the building. Again, it’s not for everyone, and you have students who go back and forth. Some students travel and they may start in the program, so they can continue with Bellefonte curriculum and can transition back into the classroom upon their return.
Q: Who is BeLA for?
A: It’s not for one particular type of student. Students do it for many reasons. A person who’s successful in online learning is a learner that is self-motivated and self-driven and willing to be a self-starter and do things on their own. They have the opportunity to work ahead and excel and take additional classes. But it’s also very difficult for some students to be motivated when they don’t have a teacher standing before you saying, “OK, get to work, focus.”
Q: So, this isn’t a cakewalk.
A: It is definitely not the easy way out. Students need to be willing to take the initiative to get the help when they’re not understanding something. When a student wants to do this, I always ask if they talked to anyone in our program. I think word of mouth is that, “oh my gosh, it’s so hard.” And I think most kids you talk to will tell you that. It’s not like showing up at school and getting participation points. There’s none of that, so what you earn on your work is your actual grade – no freebies.
Q: Is it something you want to expand?
A: If it's for the right reasons for the student, then yes. When I started out in the program I saw a surge in my second year of kiddos who did it because they thought it was going to be the easy way out, and it's definitely not. It's a lot more work than they anticipate. We would like to see the program grow and expand to accommodate the needs of our student population.
Q: What’s the enrollment eligibility?
A: We do have strict requirements for the kids, and students enroll for various reasons. But they need to make sure in order to stay in the program, they maintain (at least) 70 percent in all classes, meet weekly requirements for hours and make sure they’re staying on pace. If we see any of those things falling apart, they get a warning, so we give them one week to get back on track. If they don’t get themselves back on pace, then they won’t be allowed to continue in the program.
Q: What’s a day-in-the-life like of a student in BeLA?
A: It’s very different for each student. I have some students who are up every morning. I try to tell kids that it’s best to have a schedule and treat it like it’s regular school. We recommend one hour per class a day. So the typical high school student that’s a freshman will have seven classes, so that’s seven hours per day or 35 hours a week.
Q: What are the benefits to participating in BeLA?
A: One of the benefits to online learning in itself is the flexibility. Student have the ability to work at their own pace in their courses. The benefit of staying in the district, for our program, is you’re still a Bellefonte student. So, you’re going to graduate with your class. If you want, you can also still attend prom, dances, field trips and can participate in clubs and other extracurricular (school) activities, and our students receive a Bellefonte Area High School diploma. They have the option of working one-on-one with a teacher during the day at the BeLA Center and attend tutoring after school at the middle or high school. And of course, the option is still available to being able to attend CPI.
Q: What are the curriculum requirements?
A: The requirements are going to be identical to what we require in the brick and mortar setting in Bellefonte. So, students enrolled in online courses will have to meet all the same graduation requirements as their peers attending the high school. Students are also still required to take physical education and complete all state-mandated testing requirements.
Q: As the coordinator, what is your role?
A: My responsibility is to make sure kids are doing what they need to be doing to ensure their academic success. They need to be meeting their end of the bargain. We need to account for attendance, so I monitor attendance on a weekly basis to make sure they’re meeting their hour requirements, so we are in compliance with state attendance laws. I monitor grades and student pacing. I also communicate with parents, administrators, counselors and students on a daily basis. One thing I like about my job is I can’t say, "this is what I do every day," because every day is different. And that’s awesome. I will have kids in my office nonstop and truly enjoy working individually with students.