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Leaders of a new online public charter high school in Wisconsin say its focus on career and technical education will help train students for high-paying jobs in fields that desperately need workers, such as construction.

The school, announced in Madison on Wednesday, is to begin offering classes this fall. It will be called Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin and will be based in the McFarland School District, which already authorizes another online school, Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

According to the new school’s founders, students will be able to get a head start on careers by earning technical and specialty trade credentials and college credits along with their high school diplomas.

The venture will be Wisconsin’s first career and technical education online school and potentially a national prototype, said Terry McGowan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

“Everyone’s watching us,” McGowan said.

The Wisconsin labor union, based in Pewaukee, is a partner in the effort along with Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton and the McFarland School District.

The virtual school will use the digital curriculum and academic services of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company based in Herndon, Virginia.

The company also provides the curriculum for Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

The new high school will offer career pathways in four clusters: architecture and construction; business, management and administration; health science; and information technology.

Students in grades 9-12 will be able to earn dual credits through Fox Valley Technical College, said Nicholaus Sutherland, who will be the new venture’s head of school. He serves in the same capacity for Wisconsin Virtual Academy.

Destinations Career Academy will be a tuition-free public charter school, serving full-time students as well as offering individual courses to students in schools that do not have access to career and technical education programs, Sutherland said.

The school’s first-year enrollment goal is 225 students, he said. Students can enroll at any grade level 9-12.

As an online school, students will view lectures, work on material and take tests without leaving their homes.

All teachers will be state-licensed and teach from virtual classrooms in their homes, Sutherland said.

McGowan said there’s a huge demand right now for construction workers.

In the past, his union could find heavy-equipment operators, mechanics and surveyors by recruiting farm kids for its apprenticeship programs. That option has narrowed as the number of family farms has dwindled, he said.

“Our labor pool no longer has experience with heavy equipment, but they do have experience with videos,” he said. “So we thought, why not appeal to those kids through a virtual academy?”

The union intends to offer summer camps for high-achieving students.

Upon graduating, students in the construction pathway will have earned what McGowan called “a pre-apprenticeship certificate” and will have a leg up in being recruited by the union for its apprenticeship programs. The approach could get students rapidly into high-paying jobs, he said.

“There are a lot of kids out there who want to get dirt under their fingernails and start working right after high school,” he said.

For those who want to go on to more education, Sutherland said, the credits earned through Fox Valley Technical College will be “highly transferable” among the state’s technical colleges.

The new school is accepting open enrollments through April 29 at widca.k12.com.

Through open enrollment, virtual schools can draw students from across the state, an approach that has made them controversial among some public school advocates.

For each student enrolled, Destinations Career Academy will get about $6,650 in state aid from that student’s home school district, Sutherland said.

Of the $6,650, the McFarland School District keeps a small portion to cover management and oversight, he said.

Test scores and graduation rates for Wisconsin Virtual Academy have lagged at times.

According to the most recent state report card for the school, its overall accountability score falls within the “meets expectations” category, which is the mid-range of the ratings.

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