The reality of virtual schools


This fall, when the school bell rings, not everyone will answer. While hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin kids will grab their backpacks and scurry out the door to school, the Jastroch kids will finish their breakfast and bound up the stairs to the second floor of their Milwaukee bungalow.

On a typical school morning, Tori, 10, Jeremy 8, and Claire, 6, sit in a row at a table, their bare feet dangling underneath them. They each reach for the mouse of their own computer, and a few clicks later, class begins. The Jastroch children are students at Wisconsin Virtual Learning—a charter school offered by the Northern Ozaukee School District. 
This fall, more than 67-hundred students will attend one of 29 virtual charter schools in Wisconsin. Wisconsin began its virtual charter school program in 2002 with four schools in three school districts. The numbers have grown every year since. In the past two years, the number of virtual charter schools has more than doubled in Wisconsin. In the last four years, enrollment has grown 128 percent.
There are numerous reasons why families choose to leave the traditional brick and mortar schools: medical issues, bullying, high achievers wanting to move ahead … For many, virtual school is a welcome solution. For mom Amy Jastroch, it was a difficult decision. “There were tears from me many times at night because it’s not easy. I was so nervous! It felt like such a big choice.”
Amy says they loved their New Berlin parochial school and the teachers, but they needed to slow things down a bit. “We do a lot of activities: sports, taekwondo, music. It felt like we were always running and never home as a family. My husband and I discussed it, and financially, it made sense.”
Last year, the Jastrochs traded private school tuition for no tuition at Wisconsin Virtual Learning. School fees amounted to $60 a child. Each child received a notebook computer and a bin filled with school supplies, workbooks and other learning tools. (Claire—the kindergartener—also got a red rubber ball in her bin.) The school also provided a printer/scanner for homework assignments. 
Most virtual charter schools receive government funding, but are run by a private organization. The state Department of Public Instruction says online charter schools are subject to fewer restrictions than traditional schools. However, they are reviewed regularly and must meet state standards.
The state’s open enrollment policy allows families to choose a virtual school offered by any district in the state. When a student open enrolls, his home district pays a state-mandated amount to the district in which he enrolls. Losing students—and dollars—through open enrollment is incentive for some school districts to consider offering an online option.
This fall, the Wauwatosa School District is launching the new Wauwatosa Virtual Academy. Dennis Mahony, principal of the virtual 6th through 12th grade school, expects about 80 open enrollment students and another 30 to 40 part-time and full-time students from within the district to attend. The district is partnering with the private vendor Advanced Academics to run the school.
Mahony says the idea to offer a virtual charter school evolved from an ongoing effort to help struggling students. He saw a number of them as principal of Milwaukee County educational programs, including students at Children’s Hospital and the Detention Center.
After observing kids in the hospital, Mahony says he realized many of them were more alert in the evening hours. He says it was School Superintendent Phil Ertl who suggested using online courses with teachers available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mahony says soon after, counselors and teachers began to see the possibilities of online classes for other students. “At the time there were a couple of high school girls with depression issues that affected their sleeping,” says Mahony. “The time they felt awake never seemed to correspond with the school day.”
He says other teachers saw online courses benefitting students who couldn’t get a course they wanted, or kids in the gifted and talented range who needed to work ahead. Mahony says initially they thought they’d try Advanced Academics for a semester. Then it turned into a year. Two years later, Mahony says they saw positive results: a 70 to 80 percent success rate among the more than 50 students who took the online courses.
“I was euphoric,” Mahony says. “We were seeing students who were stuck be able to move ahead.”
This past spring, Mahony pitched the Wauwatosa Virtual Academy to families not only in Wauwatosa but in the northern and northwestern part of the state where there are no or very few districts offering online courses. “Parents have the same concerns everywhere,” he says. “They want their kids to be successful in school and it doesn’t really matter how that happens. They just want to know there are solutions.”
Dr. Michael Mazius, clinical psychologist and director of North Shore Center LLC, says he and his colleagues have spent many years trying to figure out how to stimulate uninterested, unmotivated kids—kids who are bright, but for whom the traditional academic program falls flat. He says virtual school may be the ideal for these children. Although a hybrid program, combining virtual school with some traditional school experiences, would be most beneficial.
“Going into a school and being exposed to that rich environment is so important,” he says. “You really have to stop and think about what your child is losing before you choose homebound instruction.
Psychotherapist Laurie Pasch says there may also be some family considerations to think about. “If you have a child who was pulled from school because of behavior problems, then the mother is the person managing and navigating that difficult behavior, as well as trying to teach them, as well as trying to be their mother.”
Pasch says in some home school situations, there is so much tension, there is no longer a mother/daughter or mother/son relationship. It’s teacher/child and the mom is feeling sad about the loss of that part of their interaction. 
Virtual school administrators say because the class schedule is flexible, students need to be self-directed and self-motivated to be successful. At the same time, they note students tend to become more motivated because they are allowed to take control of their learning by going at their own pace. School is also done more efficiently, so work can be completed in much less time.
Amy says her children are good students and tend to work ahead of schedule. Because of their young ages, though, Amy says she does need to be involved. “It’s definitely a job. So the housework and that kind of stuff have to wait.” 
Wisconsin Virtual Learning does offer a lot of support—a principal, tech support, virtual classroom instructors, and a student learning advocate who calls monthly. “It’s a nice safety net for me,” says Amy. “I feel like I’m not taking this on by myself. Other people have my kids’ best interest in mind, too, and are making sure we’re doing what we need to do.”
Many parents question the quality of an online education. “That was our biggest concern,” says Mahony. “Is the rigor there? But our students and parents found it wasn’t a cakewalk. They had to put the time in.”
The Jastroch kids found that out, too. Amy says the curriculum is definitely not easier. She says Jeremy was writing about a paper a week. “For a 2nd grade boy, that was pretty intense.”
Although the Jastroch kids say they miss their friends during the school day, they say they like virtual school. “I like how you can use your own bathroom,” says Jeremy, who also enjoys going to school in his pajamas.
“I like being home with my mom,” says Claire.
Jeremy and Claire say younger kids, like them, would especially like virtual school. Amy says it’s because the virtual teachers and videos are so entertaining. “Dr. Algae is their science teacher. Mr. Readmore is their reading teacher and they are very comical and interesting.”
Tori says her online instruction is not as entertaining. “It’s just like normal school: Sometimes it can be boring. Sometimes you’re into stuff and it’s fun.”
Once a week, they have a “classroom” they attend with other kids—kind of like a chat room. They can see the teacher via a video and the students can talk through a microphone on their computer. They can also type their question and instant message their teacher and classmates.
“Tori has developed friends in her classroom,” says Amy, “and the teacher will put them in a separate chat room so they can talk back and forth.”
Tori also got to see some of the students in her virtual classroom when the teacher set up a field trip to Madison to tour the capitol.
The children typically finish their school day by noon. That leaves time for outings with other homeschooled children and more time together as a family.
“I’ve watched the three of them and their relationships strengthen,” says Amy, “whereas before, they were hardly seeing each other. I drop them off at school. I pick them up. We come home. Eat supper, quickly shoving food down, and then run to soccer or wherever.”
Still, Amy says she wants her children to go back to traditional school in middle or high school. She says there are experiences she doesn’t want them to miss. She also predicts her social kids will want to stay in the traditional school at that point—enjoying the clubs and the sports teams. 
Pasch agrees those experiences are important for children. “While parents often have their own hopes and dreams for their children, school can give kids a different perspective,” she says. “There are other adults providing experience in interacting with the world outside the child’s home and family. With virtual school, what happens to that part of the kid’s life experience? Whether or not this is a downside remains to be seen.”
Mahony says virtual school is a trend that’s only in its infancy. He likens any virtual versus traditional school debate, to the old VHS versus Beta debate. “What seems like a big deal today won’t be tomorrow,” he says. Especially when something all together different probably awaits us in the future. 
List of Virtual Charter Schools in Wisconsin:
• Enrollment in virtual charter schools has increased in every school year since 2002-03.
• In the 2002-03 school year there were 265 full-time students enrolled in virtual schools
• This fall, more than 67-hundred students are expected to attend virtual charter schools in Wisconsin.
• According to a 2010 Legislative audit report: On statewide assessment exams, virtual charter school pupils typically scored higher than other public school pupils in reading and lower in mathematics from 2005 through 2008. 

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