- Commonwealth Charter Academy, an online charter, has purchased former Erie Business Center building on West Ninth Street
- CCA in fall 2022 plans to open Family Service Center on site, to provide in-person tutoring, other resources for online students
- Online charter schools saw enrollment boom in Pennsylvania during pandemic
A building once known for in-person classes for career-bound Erie adults is getting turned into a hub for online education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The former Erie Business Center building, at 248 W. Ninth St., in Erie, has been sold for $600,000 to Commonwealth Charter Academy, a statewide online charter school based in Harrisburg.
CCA plans to renovate the building and open it in the fall of 2022 as its 14th Family Service Center in Pennsylvania, said Timothy Eller, CCA‘s senior vice president of outreach and government relations.
Eller said teachers will provide online classes from the building. He said teachers also will be available, along with guidance counselors and other staff members, for in-person tutoring and meetings with parents and students at the Family Service Center in Erie.
Eller said the nearest CCA Family Service Center is in Seven Springs, near Cranberry Township in Butler County. CCA wanted to establish a physical presence in northwestern Pennsylvania as its enrollment from students in the region, including Erie County, has grown, Eller said.
“We thought it was finally time to locate up there,” he said.
“Our goal is that a family doesn’t have to travel more than 45 minutes to one hour to get to a Family Service Center,” he also said.
The deed for CCA’s purchase of the former Erie Business Center was signed June 23 and recorded at the Erie County Courthouse on June 28.
CCA bought the 30,720-square-foot building, erected in 1969, from Mountainside Plaza Inc., of Scranton, which bought the building for $390,000 from Erie Business Center Inc. in 2018, according to county property records. The records show the property, which takes up a half an acre and includes a parking lot, is assessed at $362,700.
The building has been vacant since Erie Business Center closed in 2014, a victim of declining enrollment and increased competition, among other factors.
Erie Business Center offered two-year degrees in programs such as accounting and medical assistantships. It had 164 students at its Erie campus and 78 at its New Castle campus when it announced in July 2014 that it would close at the end of that year. Erie Business Center was founded in 1884 as Clark’s Business College.
CCA’s purchase of the building in Erie does not signal a push for enrollment for students in northwestern Pennsylvania, Eller said. He said CCA’s enrollment growth has been “more organic,” rather than based on recruitment since the pandemic, as more students have switched to online learning while school buildings were closed.
CCA’s statewide enrollment was 10,000 students before the pandemic and approximately 20,000 as of June 10, the end of the 2021-22 academic year, Eller said. During the pandemic, online charter enrollment, including school district programs and charter programs, increased 59%, according to the Keystone Center for Charter Change at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
He said CCA’s northwestern Pennsylvania region stretches from Erie County south to Mercer County and east to Warren and Forest counties.
CCA’s enrollment figures for the northwestern region, by county, according to the school:
- Erie — 172
- Crawford — 70
- Mercer — 81
- Venango — 30
- Warren — 13
- Forest — 6
- Clarion — 58
CCA’s location of a site in Erie County comes as the Erie School District, the largest public school in the region with more than 10,000 students, has continued its efforts to limit the number of district students who attend public charter schools, which are funded with tax revenue. Four brick-and-mortar charters operate in Erie County, and students can also enroll in any of the 14 public online charter schools that operate statewide and can draw students from across the state.
Public school districts in Pennsylvania must pay the tuition for charter school students. Erie School District officials and others critical of charter school funding argue that the cost to educate charter school students, especially online charter school students, is, in reality, lower than the tuition costs for those students, but that school districts must pay the higher tuition rate.
Charter schools have defended the costs and said charter schools provide an option to families dissatisfied with traditional public schools. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, most recently pushed for changes to the charter funding formula as part of his proposed 2021-22 budget, which passed the GOP-controlled General Assembly without the changes.
At the Erie School District, Superintendent Brian Polito said 55 students in the district attend the Commonwealth Charter Academy and 582 students in the district attend non-district online programs overall. The district has launched its own online programs as part of Polito’s initiatives to curb charter enrollment.
Those initiatives are part of the Erie School District’s state-mandated financial improvement plan, which the district must follow in exchange for it receiving an additional $14 million in annual state aid, starting in 2018, to stay solvent.
As more students opted for non-district online programs during the pandemic, the district’s charter school tuition payments increase by about $1.9 million in 2021-22, to a total of $33.2 million in 2021-22, according to the district’s newly passed 2021-22 budget. The district’s 2021-22 tuition payments are 6% higher than the 2020-21 payments of $31.3 million. The district’s $33.2 million tuition payments in 2021-22 represent about 13.5% of the district’s overall budget of $246.3 million.
The Erie School District has promoted its online programs — they fall under the district’s Cyber Choice Academy — by emphasizing that students in the programs can get in-person help from district teachers and stay connected to the district in other ways.
Expanded programs:Erie School District broadens online offerings
“What makes the EPS Cyber Choice Academy most attractive is the continuous teacher support and interaction,” according to a district summary of its online programs. “And, while courses may be taken online from home similar to other cyber charter schools, students enrolled in the district’s online program will continue to be students of their Erie high school.
Going door to door:Erie School District’s charter plan says ‘Welcome home’
“Students who complete their graduation requirements online will also earn the same high school diploma as students in a traditional classroom and may participate in graduation ceremony.”
CCA pitches a similar approach for its programs. It highlights its Family Service Centers as offering additional resources to keep students and teachers connected.
“CCA teachers conduct virtual classes from the Family Service Centers, and families can stop by for in-person help with enrollment and meetings with administrators and guidance counselors, or to use any of our extensive services,” according to a CCA summary. “Our service centers host open house sessions for potential families to learn what online schooling is like, along with other conservatory events.”
Creating the new Family Service Center in Erie will take time, said Eller, the CCA spokesman. He said CCA will need a year to study the building, hire contractors, get code approvals and undertake construction.
“There is a lot that needs to be retrofitted,” he said of the Erie Business Center building.