July 25, 2008

Online College Used By West Middlesex Teachers Questioned

By Patrick W. Connelly, The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Jul. 25--WEST MIDDLESEX -- The quality of an online outlet West Middlesex teachers are using to work toward master's degrees is being called into question, board President Thomas Hubert said.

At least ten teachers used allowances provided through the district's tuition reimbursement plan to take online courses from Idaho-based Canyon College, Hubert said.

The institution is a Web-based operation that top officials in education around the country have dubbed a "diploma mill," news reports say.

A teacher with a master's degree in West Middlesex makes about $2,400 more a year than those without, an outline of their contract says.

Six teachers -- Brenda Brooks, Brad Mild, Chad Mild, Nicole Nych, Edward Pikna and Mike Williams -- were each reimbursed $2,400 in June for courses completed through Canyon, a record of board expenses shows.

The online college isn't listed among over 250 outlets legally authorized to grant degrees in Pennsylvania, according to a roster compiled by the state Department of Education.

Hubert said another four teachers in the past few months were also reimbursed the same amount for classes through Canyon and all teachers had been approved prior to starting the courses by Superintendent Alan Baldarelli.

Hubert said he wasn't aware that any teachers had completed master's degrees through Canyon or been awarded pay increases.

The board didn't question its Canyon because they believed Baldarelli, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, already had checked out Canyon, Hubert said.

The state Department of Education regulates teacher certification but allows individual school districts to distinguish the legitimacy of a master's degree, said Michael Race, the agency's deputy press secretary.

Teachers in Pennsylvania are required to complete 180 hours of professional development every five years related to their specialty to stay certified, Race said.

"There are various ways to meet it," he said, noting teachers have other options than taking classes toward a master's degree.

A teacher who pursued a master's degree at a local college alerted school directors earlier this month her colleagues were taking online courses toward the same degree in a program that was much shorter, Hubert said.

Race said he's unaware of any problems created by Canyon College in the state or of teachers in other districts using the Web site to get degrees.

The state "wouldn't have any role in accrediting Canyon College," Race said. The institution is headquartered in Caldwell, Idaho, its Web site says.

The institution is independent and provides students distant opportunities to acquire a degree from 80 programs, said Phil, a director of administrator services at the college who declined to give his last name.

"We have good master's programs and you can put us up across the board as far as course content," he said.

The institution has created more than one headache for many west coast departments of education, said Alan L. Contreres, an administrator with the Oregon state Office of Degree Authorization in Eugene.

Contreres said he's found himself at odds with the college several times.

"They've been rattling around there for ten years," he said. "The state of Idaho doesn't list it as an approved school."

Ten states consider a degree obtained from the college to be fraudulent, Contreres said.

Williams said he's certain Canyon College is accredited and is coming under fire because of an unfamiliarity with both the institution and online classes.

"It's not 1950 anymore when you have to have a teacher or a professor," Williams said. "I stand behind what we're doing."

West Middlesex teachers are eligible to be reimbursed for up to $2,400 in continuing education costs each year and are given the money within 30 days of showing proof of satisfactory course completion, their contract says.

Teachers were encouraged to use the Canyon College program by two colleagues, math teacher Mark D. Hogue and former social studies teacher Joseph W. Pasquerilla, Hubert said.

Hogue and Pasquerilla distributed fliers to teachers advertising Canyon College, Hubert said. The fliers list Hogue as the institution's curriculum coordinator. They identify Pasquerilla, as "Dr. Pasquerilla," program director, and show e-mail addresses for both men with the college. Hubert said he didn't know if Pasquerilla's graduate degree came from Canyon.

The fliers say teachers can form "cohorts" of four to 12 teachers who can work together on degrees and submit assignments as a unit.

Pasquerilla referred comment to Canyon College's hierarchy and a message left for Hogue wasn't immediately returned.

Pasquerilla, whose father is Brookfield school board President Joseph Pasquerilla, left the district earlier this summer to take a principal's position with North Hills School District in Ross Township, a Pittsburgh suburb, Hubert said.

Williams said he completed five classes through the Web site this spring and is hoping to finish a master's degree in special education.

Williams said the program's been a plus and inspired him to be a better teacher.

The classes are "really no different" than those administered at Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV in Grove City. The course work isn't as easy as people think and is helping him and others better serve the students, he said.

Hubert said he disagrees with the validity of any accreditation the institution may have and questions the taxpayers' funding of it.

School directors also alerted Southwest Mercer County Regional police and District Attorney Robert Kochems of the situation, Hubert said.

The board meets next at 7 p.m. Monday in the band room at Oakview Elementary School.


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