Here at PALCS, students enroll from all around the state for many different reasons. Getting the chance to speak to students and their families to learn their stories is one of the great joys of being a state-wide cyber charter school. We recently had the chance to speak to parent Colleen Ellison, who has two students enrolled here at PALCS. The Ellison family lives in Allegheny County and frequently visits the PALCS Western Regional Office located in Pittsburgh, PA.

Nicholas is currently in 5th grade at PALCS and was first enrolled in 2011 when he was in Kindergarten. After leaving PALCS for his 1st and 2nd grade year, Colleen and her husband made the decision to re-enroll him and continue at PALCS. The youngest of the Ellison’s, Caroline, is currently in 2nd grade and was first enrolled at PALCS as a Kindergartener in 2014.

After leaving PALCS for first and second grade, Nicholas’ parents decided to enroll him in a private school. Not only was this new school tuition-based, but it did not offer all the opportunities that PALCS did. Elementary and middle school students did not have a guidance counselor, nor were they given the option to take classes like coding or a foreign language. Between the dated technology and lack of opportunities, the Ellison family made the choice to re-enroll Nicholas at PALCS and was set on enrolling Caroline from the start.

Over the years, Colleen has truly come to appreciate the flexibility PALCS can offer students across the state. Whether it is a doctor’s appointment, her children getting sick or traveling, Nicholas and Caroline are able to bring their school with them on the go. At PALCS, if student misses a live lesson, they can watch the recording of that same lesson without disrupting daily duties, not to mention receiving one-on-one help from teachers by attending lesson help or homework help. “It has been a blessing that I don’t have to pull the kids out of school. If they have an appointment or are sick, they don’t miss a beat,” said Colleen. When it comes to traveling, the Ellison’s especially like to take trips throughout the year so they can expose their children to different places, cultures and experiences, “We were in Cape May on the beach as Caroline was working on her classes for her first day of Kindergarten,” Colleen exclaimed. In a brick-and-mortar school, this would rarely be an option as students would need to physically be in class in order to absorb all the information. PALCS allows students to be exposed to meaningful life experiences while also keeping up academically and, as Colleen puts it, “never missing a beat.”

The Ellison’s take full advantage of the socialization opportunities offered at PALCS by always attending the beginning/end of the year picnics, onsite events and monthly clubs. “Our kids participate in more social activities at PALCS then they would if they were are a typical brick and mortar school. Nick even attended a virtual field trip to Africa last year, it was truly amazing,” said Colleen. At PALCS, students can take part in activities and trips, whether they are educational or social, without disturbing their learning. Colleen explained that they even meet up with fellow PALCS families during yearly holiday breaks and throughout the summer months in order to build that sense of community. Whether it’s bowling, going to museums or shows they believe it is important to stay connected with the PALCS community. During PA Leadership’s winter break this past year Colleens husband, Timothy, coordinated a trip with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, inviting interested PALCS families to go see A Christmas Carol at the Benedum in downtown Pittsburgh. Just as any other regular public school, they were given the same school discount and opportunities. Ironically when they walked in as a group representing PALCS, Nicholas heard his name being called from a group of students from his previous brick-and-mortar school. It was a situation like this, that made Colleen realize just how many opportunities are out there for not only brick-and-mortar school students, but cyber students as well. The only difference was that Colleen didn’t have to leave it to chance to be picked as a chaperone on the field trip like she did at her son’s previous school. She was able to have control of her students’ safety and well being while also building relationships with fellow PALCS families.

When asked what she thought the best part of PALCS is, Colleen instantly replied, “the curriculum, the teachers, the guidance department, and the access parents have to their student’s school work and safety.” She believes that the outlook on sending a student to a brick-and-mortar school is changing because the level of safety in the schools is changing. In a cyber school, parents have control over the students’ safety because they are learning from the comfort of their own home. In addition, Colleen could not stress enough how important her students guidance counselors have been to her family. “You don’t realize the impact that the counselors will have on the students, they are their main advocate,” she said. Shocked that some schools do not offer students guidance counselors until they reach high school, Colleen said, “we have been so blessed with our counselors thus far, Mrs. Bergmaier and Mrs. Malvesto, they have been a crucial part our students’ success.”

Regarding being a parent of a PALCS student and learning how to use all the technology, Colleen explained that, “if you can look up the weather online, you can help your student.” In a cyber school, parents have access to student’s grades and can see what they are learning which allows them to immediately know if their student is struggling or what they do not understand. Parents also have access to their students’ teachers through conferences, phone or email. Colleen explained how her children’s teachers are in constant communication with the class, “they are so specific and in-tune with Caroline and Nicholas’s progress, I never have a problem getting in touch or hearing back from them.” Two teachers that have really made a difference for the Ellison family are 5th grade teacher Mrs. Rose Owens and 2nd grade teacher Ms. Kristin Harris. Their dedication and attentiveness truly impressed Colleen and made a lasting impression.

With so many different cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania, the Ellison’s mom offered some advice to parents who are looking for other options for their students’ education: “be sure that all grades have a guidance counselor, the school’s curriculum is spaced out and paced, look into what social programs the school offers, and make sure the teachers are working from an office.” At PALCS, all teachers work from one of our four offices in Pennsylvania and are readily available to their students. This was a key factor that attracted Colleen and her family to choose PALCS. Feedback from teachers was important to her and she wanted to have an open channel of communication with her students’ teachers. “Mr. Packer (PALCS teacher) checked in with us every few weeks, just to see how Nicholas was doing,” said Colleen. Communication is a top priority here at PALCS, between live lessons, lesson help hours, homework help, and knowing your teacher is always a call or a quick message away it is hard not to feel supported.

We would like to offer a special thanks to Colleen and her family for taking the time to share their story and experiences with us. Here at PALCS, we are so lucky that our community is filled with so many dedicated students and families. Each PALCS student and family has their own story and we are so lucky to get to be a part of each one of them.