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Eighth-grader James Roll enjoys learning math, science, English and social studies through an online school that lets him learn at his own pace using a computer at home. But he says he likes the art and music classes at what he calls “real school” — Kromrey Middle School in Middleton — even more.

James is a pioneer of sorts, and so is the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, when it comes to computer-based, or virtual, learning.

This year, Middleton launched its 21st Century eSchool. It’s one of just a dozen virtual schools in Wisconsin, and the second in Dane County; last year the McFarland School District became the sponsoring district for the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), which opened for the 2009-2010 school year with about 400 students and this year counts twice that many.

The two schools share several key elements: They offer a broad range of online courses, beginning at the kindergarten level and continuing all the way through high school, employ licensed Wisconsin teachers to oversee online learning, and require that students participate in mandatory testing each year.

Perhaps most importantly, both districts are keenly aware that open enrollment — the ability to send your child to any district in the state — can have a significant impact on their district’s bottom line. Like it or not, administrators look at children and know that between $6,700 and $6,800 per year/per child comes and goes with each inward or outward migration from their district. And with stagnant state funding making every dollar precious, there is increased pressure on districts to keep up their student numbers.

Middleton seems to be addressing the challenge by sweetening the pot for its own students, allowing them to take classes both in and out of the standard classroom. Its virtual school currently has 37 students, about half of whom come from the Middleton school district, which has a total enrollment of 5,900 students.

McFarland, on the other hand, is the sponsoring school district for a virtual school that caters almost entirely to out-of-district students. The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, chartered to a nonprofit group that’s not part of the McFarland district, has 813 online students, with just five coming from McFarland.

These numbers, say Madison School Board member Ed Hughes, suggest that McFarland’s online push has an ulterior motive. “It sure doesn’t look like McFarland is operating its online program to serve its own students,” he says in a phone interview. “Basically, WIVA is a money-making deal for their district by taking students from other districts. Oh, and by the way, K12 Inc., the Virginia company that exclusively provides the curriculum for the school, is making money, too.”

K12 Inc. is an education technology company and the nation’s largest provider of curriculum and online school materials.

Hughes’ obvious irritation was fueled by recent open enrollment figures showing that Madison has lost more than 150 students to McFarland, both to the Wisconsin Virtual Academy and to McFarland bricks-and-mortar schools.

Hughes expanded on his frustration in a recent piece he wrote for his Ed Hughes School Blog: “Since we have to send about $6,800 per student to districts that receive our open enrollers, this means that we’ll be cutting a (perhaps figurative) check in excess of $1,000,000 to the McFarland School District.”

But McFarland Superintendent Scott Brown says his district is only getting $300 to $350 per student per year from the online school and says the Wisconsin Virtual Academy is not necessarily poaching students from the traditional classroom. “Schools like WIVA have brought a lot of students who may not have been under the tent of public education into school districts like ours.”

Dan Rossmiller, spokesman for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says that the ongoing problems with a broken state school funding system, exacerbated by the gloomy economy and a lack of increases in state aid over the past four school budgets, is helping to fuel tensions among districts open enrolling students from other areas. Districts are tending to view open enrollment in financial terms. Also at issue is that some districts apparently use public money to advertise for students in other districts. Last year, during the open enrollment period in the spring, ads for a Waukesha-based virtual charter school appeared in Dane County media.

“Open enrollment and the pressures surrounding allocating dollars on a per pupil basis can set up some internecine kind of fights across district lines,” Rossmiller acknowledges. These pressures can even affect board decisions regarding a district’s budget components. He says he has known of cases where parents have threatened to move their children from their home district into a neighboring one over proposed increases in sports participation fees. The result? The district backed down.

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Middleton’s eSchool, which was developed through the district and chartered through the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board, employs district teachers who are unionized. Wisconsin Virtual Academy, chartered to an outside nonprofit organization, is known as a non-instrumentality charter school and does not use district teachers. Critics charge these nonunion teachers are less well paid and may be less experienced than unionized teachers.

A current online ad from KC Distance Learning, owned by K12 Inc., is seeking Wisconsin certified teachers interested in part-time online work (between two and 30 hours a week) for $12 an hour. That wage is considerably less, especially considering benefits, than most beginning teachers make in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Virtual Academy operates out of a storefront in a strip mall off U.S. 51 and has hired 12.5 full-time-equivalent Wisconsin certified teachers to work with students this year, says Leslye Erickson, head of school for WIVA. Teachers are scattered across the Badger state and Erickson herself also lives out of the district.

In addition to the five full-time online students, about 90 McFarland High School students take one or two online classes, Superintendent Brown estimates. He says WIVA’s full-time students “have their own activities” and do not participate in clubs or extracurricular activities offered at McFarland’s schools. But he adds that the five online students who actually live within the McFarland district could participate in district-sponsored activities if they chose to and scheduling permitted.

By contrast, Middleton’s new eSchool, run through the school district with district employees, has been designed from the beginning to be integrated into the rest of Middleton’s public schools rather than operating outside of the district. In this inaugural year, besides the 37 full-time online students, there are also 49 regular Middleton High students who are taking one or two courses electronically.

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“Our goal in putting this school together was primarily to serve our own students who were interested for a variety of reasons in taking their classes online,” says Sherri Cyra, Middleton’s director of teaching and learning. “We learned we weren’t providing the kind of education some of our families needed, and we didn’t want to lose them.”

The school offers a customized online curriculum, purchased through several content providers and developed by the Middleton district to reflect student interests and needs. Classes include such subjects as advanced placement art history, advanced game design and marine biology. Students may also participate in some of the non-academic experiences of a bricks and mortar school, including art and music classes at the middle school, or extra-curricular activities like theater or band.

Teachers from the Middleton district are involved in teaching some of the online classes, and, in fact, have developed some of the courses. Next semester, a Middleton teacher and some of her students will explore an extreme version of long-distance online learning: From Australia, she will be teaching a computer programming course that she designed.

For eighth-grader James, online learning has been a blessing. On several recent mornings, he has turned his family’s suburban kitchen into a science lab. Using common household supplies like molasses and cooking oil, he’s doing experiments that teach lessons about density, properties of materials and specific gravity.

“This is the first time he has really enjoyed science,” notes his mother, Chan Strohman.

A shy student who found it hard to speak up in class when he went to a conventional bricks-and-mortar school with other kids, James likes his online academic classes, including math, reading, social studies, language arts and science, all organized around his home computer. His virtual lessons are supplemented with textbooks and workbooks as well as the glass beakers and other tools that allow him to do the kitchen-based science experiments he loves. But the biggest bonus, he says, is being able to enjoy art and music in a noncompetitive atmosphere with kids his age.

“Yeah, I like going to real school for those classes,” he says. “The kids are nice.”

Like some cutting edge schools in New York City (School of One) and San Francisco (Flex Academy), the 21st Century eSchool is part of a growing effort nationwide to customize education to reflect the needs of individual students, Cyra says. These types of programs use a mix of online learning, bricks-and-mortar school experiences and a variety of teaching models and mentors. It’s a contrast to the traditional model most of us grew up with that puts a single teacher in front of a class, with the assumption that the curriculum and teacher’s ability will serve at least the majority of the students in his or her class.

Jill Gurtner, principal at Middleton’s alternative high school, has worked closely with Cyra on the new charter school.

“It offers kids a pretty expansive menu of options, and a way to customize their education to fit their individual needs,” she says. “I think that’s the direction we want to be going, an education plan that works for every student.”