By STEPHEN HUBA
For The Weirton Daily Times
NEW CUMBERLAND - Starting this fall, Hancock County students will be able to take online courses through their own school district.
The Hancock County Cyber Academy will be the first of its kind in West Virginia and should be up and running by the second trimester of the 2014-2015 school year, Superintendent Suzan Smith said.
"This will enhance the curriculum for our high schools," Smith said. "It will give our students greater opportunity and more flexibility."
Plans for the pilot project can go forward now that Hancock County Schools have secured grant funding through the Pittsburgh-based Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.
Smith said the school district learned last week it had received $120,000 from the foundation to cover staff development and other startup costs for the first year.
"It is great news," she said.
Also last week, the school board assigned 13 high school teachers to the task of developing online courses in social studies, biology, physical science, English and math.
"These would all be required classes," Smith said, noting they may also include advanced placement courses.
The teachers have been given eight days in July to develop the curriculum - an assignment that extends into the summer of 2015. In the meantime, the teachers will receive training through Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit 1, a multi-county agency similar to West Virginia's Regional Education Service Agencies, or RESAs.
The possibility of offering online courses has been under study since February, Smith said, and has been given urgency by the loss of Hancock County students to online schools in other states.
"There's no need for them to do that. We can develop our own," she said.
Having its own online school may help Hancock County stem the drop in enrollment and make it more competitive with schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, she said.
School board member John Manypenny touted the online school concept during his re-election campaign in the spring.
"If this can become a reality, it'll be great for the students," he said. "It'll let students take some of their classes online through the high school, so it would benefit homebound students and students needing to recover course credit."
Manypenny said the online school, once instituted, also could help increase Hancock County's graduation rate and reduce the dropout rate.
Students will be able to take the online courses for free and take advantage of an expanded palette of course offerings, Smith said. The online school will be available for use on a full-time or part-time basis, depending on the student's needs, she said.
"There are so many opportunities to this with technology today," Smith said. "Our students are very tech-savvy, and so it comes naturally for them. This is a wonderful opportunity for them and another option for them to get their credits and classes by another means."
Smith said the West Virginia Department of Education has been supportive of the Hancock County initiative.
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)