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Wauwatosa Virtual Academy attracts nearly 100 students

One surprise is the number driven to the school by bullying

Jan. 23, 2014

The Wauwatosa Virtual Academy is about halfway through its first year, and learning as it goes.

It has attracted almost 100 students of various kinds; provided a powerful option for kids under court jurisdiction in the district; and finds itself dealing with a relatively fluid student body as Open Enrollment students from around the state seek it out.

Perhaps most surprising is the number of students motivated to online learning as a result of bullying in a traditional setting. School counselor Amy Harrington said half to two-thirds of the roughly 49 full-time students in the program enrolled because of bullying.

Who attends, and why

About half of the Virtual Academy's 96 students are full-time, with 21 from Wauwatosa, and 28 studying through Open Enrollment from communities around the state. While the school didn't come close to its hope for 100 Open Enrollment students — who each bring with them $6,500 in funding — enough have enrolled to put the school at or near a breakeven point, said Business Director John Mack.

In another way, the school, which serves students in grades six through 12, has done what it hoped to do: recapture Wauwatosa students who were leaving the district for virtual learning offered by other districts.

Harrington, who works in the program, said there are 10 documented students who enrolled in the Wauwatosa Virtual Academy who had been studying online elsewhere. Those students represent a savings of some $65,000.

Reasons and results

A breakdown of the four basic categories of enrollees shows a broad variety of reasons and results.

· Of the 21 full-time students from Wauwatosa, 15 are said to be "on target," said Principal Dennis Mahony.

The other six are making insufficient progress. Harrington said meetings have been held with their parents, and they will be assigned back to a traditional classroom.

At the same time, four families have completed applications for their children to attend the Virtual Academy full time.

· Virtually all of the 28 Open Enrollment students are full time, with 22 said to be making "on target" academic progress. Six others are struggling or making little progress.

At the present time, five new Open Enrollment students have been approved to enter the academy, and there are four other Open Enrollment applications being processed, Mahony said.

· The academy also has 32 part-time students from Wauwatosa. Four are "fifth-year seniors," two of whom have recently completed their coursework and will graduate this month.

Three other students are taking courses "in lieu of expulsion," Mahony said. All three of them are in good academic standing.

Five other students have special education needs, and two more qualify for 504 plans, which ensure that students with disabilities receive accommodations that give them access to education.

Also among the part-time students are six students taking an Advanced Placement math course that West High School canceled because of low enrollment; five students identified as gifted and talented; and seven others seeking credit recovery, having scheduling problems, or for other reasons.

· Finally, online learning is used in two programs for youth under court jurisdiction who become part of the Wauwatosa School District when they are placed in the district.

One program serves kids held in the Juvenile Detention Center who are educated as part of the Milwaukee County Accountability Program. In a School Board presentation, teacher Teresa Chmielewski said 10 young people had taken or were taking 17 online classes through the program. Six classes had been completed.

Another four students, in an interventional program called FOCUS, attend the Plank Road School and also use online learning.

The exact number of students enrolled is a moving target, Harrington said.

Open Enrollment students can apply to enter the Virtual Academy at any time if they fall under one of eight different qualifying factors — for example, if they have been expelled or could be expelled; or if they are receiving special education services. Harrington said bullying was sometimes a motivation for mid-year enrollment.

"We're beginning to understand the kinds of families that I think benefit a lot by this. I would say that one things that I was amazed with ... the number of families that feel that bullying was an issue," Mahony said.

He said he and Harrington were giving a presentation in February at a school counselors convention that would include an emphasis on bullying prevention and virtual learning.

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