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Wauwatosa district studies creating virtual charter school

Nov. 7, 2012

The Wauwatosa School District could add a virtual charter school to its options under a presentation made to the School Board on Monday night.

Ed Mahony, an administrator in the district assigned to the task, presented case studies of actual - though unnamed - Wauwatosa students who had taken classes online, including their reasons, the circumstances under which some succeeded and others did not, and their varied outcomes.

Records of more than 50 students were compiled in the study, said Director of Student Learning Beth Erenberger.

For years the district, under special circumstances, has paid for students to participate in virtual learning at an outside institution, such as Wisconsin Virtual School or the Advanced Learning Academy of Wisconsin, Erenberger said.

The circumstances under which students have sought online learning include those with scheduling conflicts, lost academic credits, and medical conditions that prevent them from attending school. So-called super seniors looking to get their degree and students seeking specific courses have also pursued online opportunities.

Tosa students who don't qualify for district funding have the option of enrolling privately in virtual schools and paying for it themselves, and Mahony said there are families in the district who sign up for open enrollment and enroll in an outside district that offers a virtual education option.

Mahony, who serves as the district's detention center administrator, said that, in some cases, virtual learning has allowed students who have struggled to achieve success. For others, it has not worked. He said virtual learning with a teacher present, who acts as a coach, is a combination that works for some.

A hybrid model, with a student taking some classes in a traditional setting, and some virtual classes, is another benefit, Mahony said.

School Board members generally supported the concept as an option that gives students more choice, which officials say fits in with the district's general approach.

"Our philosophy in Tosa now is to give students choices," West High School Principal Frank Calarco.

A frustrated student who runs out of options starts to frustrate other students, so virtual education can change student attitudes, Calarco said, adding. "I've seen it first-hand already working."

Lois Weber also praised the plan as another path for students to achieve success, and Mary Jo Randall said she saw great potential in offering accelerated classes.

Mahony said that by creating a virtual charter school the district could not only keep students who seek a virtual education in the Wauwatosa system, but, if it had a statewide reach, could enroll students from other districts and potentially create a revenue source.

Phil Kroner said he'd have to think about it.

"Some students were leaving us and going to other districts," he said, "so to counter this we're (creating a virtual school) to take students from other districts."

Anne Fee wondered about the wisdom of creating a virtual charter school, as opposed to offering a virtual program. If a student wanted some virtual classes and some traditional classes, would they have to enroll in the virtual school?

"Is it acceptable to be dual-enrolled?" she asked.

Director of Human Resources Dan Chanen said the presentation was intended to get a sense from the board if they had an interest in pursuing the plan. A more formal proposal with more detail on funding, how the school would work, and the dual-enrollment issue, would be forthcoming, he said.

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