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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Many Southeast Wisconsin School Districts To Offer Virtual Option Next School Year

Virtual learning
Courtesy Christina Schapiro
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Christina Schapiro's sons participated in Racine Unified's virtual program last school year and plan to continue in the upcoming school year.

Wisconsin school districts are focused on bringing students back to classrooms for in-person learning in the coming school year. But after the sudden, widespread introduction of virtual education in 2020, some families want to stick with it.

WUWM reached out to about 20 southeastern Wisconsin school districts, and found that many of them plan to offer a virtual option for a small number of students next school year.

Virtual learning worked well for Christina Schapiro’s two sons.

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Courtesy Christina Schapiro
Two of Christina Schapiro's children enrolled in Racine Unified's virtual program last year, and plan to continue.

"My kids have never shown the level of progress and confidence that they showed in this past school year," Schapiro says.

Schapiro’s sixth grader and eighth grader had problems with in-person school. One of her sons is transgender, and dealt with bullying. The other had attention issues in the classroom.

So, when the pandemic happened, Schapiro took the opportunity to do something she had already been thinking about. She put them in Racine Unified School District’s virtual program, which existed prior to the pandemic.

"They got excited about learning," Schapiro says. "They were happy to be doing school. This is coming from kids who used to have stomachaches in the morning and didn’t want to get on the bus. So to see them have that level of excitement in learning was awesome."

Racine Unified Director of Virtual Learning James O’Hagan says the district's virtual program is a mostly self-directed, self-paced curriculum with teachers available for support.

"Prior to the pandemic, our virtual program was seen as more of a supplement to allow students some opportunities to get courses that maybe they couldn’t fit into their traditional school schedules," O'Hagan says.

During the pandemic, the virtual program expanded — enrolling 100 students full-time. At the same time, the majority of the district's students were learning remotely via online instruction from their classroom teachers. That remote instruction will not continue in the 2021-22 school year, the virtual academy will serve as Racine’s only virtual option.

Virtual Charter Schools A Popular Option

Waukesha is another school district that had a virtual program in place before the pandemic. It has a fairly large virtual charter school called eAchieve Academy. Under state law, virtual charter schools are allowed to open-enroll students from outside school districts, along with resident students.

Jason Smith, principal of eAchieve Academy, says enrollment jumped during the pandemic from about 1,300 to more than 2,000.

"So we’re planning for enrollment not to be as high as last year, obviously during the pandemic," Smith says. "But I think there are gonna be a few hundred students higher than they were pre-pandemic."

The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District is launching a new virtual charter school called the Deeper Learning Virtual Academy to capitalize on the increased demand for remote learning. Coordinator of Instructional Services Adam Hengel says the pandemic put the idea of establishing a virtual charter school on the district's "front-burner," though leaders had been thinking about it already.

"We serve almost 7,500 students and we lose a couple hundred students every year to virtual academies outside of the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District," Hengel says. "So virtual learning is nothing new and it’s something we decided to jump on ourselves as well."

Contracting Out Virtual Instruction

Some districts that don’t want to create their own virtual programs are contracting with other districts to provide an online option. Shorewood is contracting with the Kiel Area School District, which has a long-standing virtual charter school.

Deb Sixel, an administrator for Kiel's eSchool, says the district has 18 contracts so far with other districts for next year. That’s compared to four contracts in 2020.

"They want to offer the option to their students but they don’t want to create a whole other school," Sixel says. "And because we’ve been in the virtual business, so to speak, for the past 20 years, we have that experience, we have high-quality instructional staff."

The partner districts like Shorewood pay the Kiel district $4,700 per student. The benefit for Shorewood is that it still gets to count those students toward its enrollment for state funding.

Milwaukee Public Schools is planning to offer a virtual option for about 1,400 students who expressed interest. District leaders say the program will contract with a third party to provide the curriculum and instruction, but has not released any further details.

Of course, there are some districts that have decided it's not worth it to offer a virtual program for the small number of students they've found are interested.

"Creating a virtual school is almost a separate school, if we were going to do that," says Saint Francis Superintendent Mark Elworthy. "We just didn't have a critical mass to provide a quality program based on our numbers."

Teachers Take On A New Challenge

Katie Hendrix and Suellen Krahn are two longtime Racine educators who were hired last school year to work full-time for the district's virtual program.

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Courtesy Christina Schapiro
Suellen Krahn meets with one Christina Schapiro's kids. Christina attributes the kids' success in the virtual program in large part to Krahn, their teacher.

"My day is completely different than what it was in the classroom," Krahn says. "I start my day every morning with my K-2 students. ... Half hour later I have my 3-5 group. Then the kids are kind of on their own and they access their learning materials as they need it."

Krahn spends the rest of her day meeting one-on-one or in small groups with students who have questions or need support.

"If a student is having difficulty understanding a concept in math, we'll do one-on-one instruction," Krahn says. "The thing that's been most pleasing to me about the programming is I feel I've become a much better teacher, because I'm able to individualize the instruction to where they're at."

The Racine teachers and others who run these virtual programs say some families are enrolling due to COVID safety concerns. But they say it’s more common that families just found virtual schooling was a good fit for them, like the Schapiro family, who have Krahn and Hendrix as their teachers.

"Having taught a long time, you see how many kids struggle," Hendrix says. "Whether it’s anxiety or being bullied, or not fitting in or not having friends. And the barriers melted in this capacity, and that for me was transformational."

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