From bust to boom: Cyber school gives boost to little town's future



The cyber school, one of the country's largest, is Midland's largest employer.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
MIDLAND, Pa. -- When Nick Trombetta walks around town, he's greeted with a flurry of honks, waves and handshakes.
In this western Pennsylvania town near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border that went boom then bust with big steel, Trombetta, the schools superintendent, is now the man with the jobs.
A former social studies teacher and wrestling coach, he has turned education into Midland's new industry.
Up and down Beaver Avenue, there are signs of new life in Midland: a bank building and hospital converted into a cyber school's headquarters; the old high school demolished to make way for a $23.6 million performing arts high school and regional arts center; the union hall revamped into offices with plans for a steel museum.
In this town of 3,000, the cyber school -- one of the largest in the country -- employs 270 people, including 95 teachers. But, around town, some say that is just the beginning. They hope the schools, and the performing arts center, will attract visitors to Midland with money to spend.
For Trombetta, it is all about what is next in education.
"The future is schools that are bricks and cyber," he said. "For the next five years, this will be the growth industry, and we intend to be part of that."
Testing limits
As an entrepreneur, Trombetta is testing the limits of Pennsylvania's 1997 charter law designed to allow nonprofits to compete with public schools.
In addition to running the new schools, Trombetta has plans for a nonprofit to sell the cyber school's courses, seats in the virtual classroom and business services to districts around the country.
But for many, there is something missing in the new Midland -- the traditional Lincoln High School. For generations, Midland residents filled its classrooms and rooted for the powerhouse Lincoln Leopards basketball team.
The school board shuttered Midland's high school in the mid-1980s, after the mill closed, and the town lost so many people and so much money that it could not afford to keep it open. For a while, students attended a neighboring school until a new school board ended the arrangement with the poorer, and racially more diverse, Midland.
With no other viable options, Midland reluctantly sent its high school students on a 15-minute daily bus ride across the state line to East Liverpool.
Soon after the first bus left town in 1995, the school board turned to Trombetta, their new schools superintendent, and told him to make sure Midland students would never again be without a high school.
Trombetta has done that and more, said Marvin Bahm, school board president. "He's created a new industry. He's put people around here to work," said Bahm, a pharmacist and 33-year board veteran.
Efforts are paying off
Midland's borough manager, Diane Kemp, says Trombetta's efforts are central to reviving her town. The cyber school has renovated eyesores and become its largest employer.
Now, at ninth grade, students can attend one of several high schools in Beaver County, Pa., East Liverpool, or the cyber school. This year, 25 of Midland's 120 high school students will attend the Ohio school.
The schools Trombetta has brought to Midland are nothing like Lincoln High.
In the cyber school, students "attend" virtual classes in kindergarten through high school from their home computers. Some classes are taught in real time with all students and teachers virtually connected by computer. For other courses, students work at their own pace.
The performing arts high school is slated to open in 2006 as a charter school for students from throughout the region. Midland students will be accepted without audition.
Trombetta is building off the success of the cyber school, which opened five years ago with 300 students -- most from outside Midland -- and has grown steadily ever since.
The cyber school began its sixth year nearly four weeks ago with 4,500 students from across Pennsylvania, including about 400 from the Philadelphia region. Typically, each student brings in about $7,000 in tuition paid by his or her home district. This year, the school's budget is about $25.4 million.
But the students and money attracted to Midland have come from other districts, many also struggling with tight budgets or small enrollments.
"What makes us very different from the rest of the schools is we invest in people. We reinvest in Pennsylvania," Trombetta said.

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