The school classroom for Seth and Dana Paradowski is a computer screen and keyboard tucked away in an alcove just off the family’s dining room. Their teachers are 140 miles away.
Seth, 14, and Dana, 12, children of John and Diane Paradowski, are students at Wisconsin Connections Academy (WCA), a virtual charter public school operated by the Appleton Area School District. They’re among more than 5,000 Wisconsin public school students currently attending virtual charter schools through Wisconsin’s open enrollment program.
For the past six years, Seth and Dana have attended classes, studied and taken tests from afar. A few times a year, they’ve joined other WCA students and families for field trips to plays, museums and athletic events.
“It’s been awesome. I’m completely impressed with it,” says Diane Paradowski, 39.
Seth and Dana started elementary school in Oak Creek and Diane volunteered in their classrooms. “Being in the classroom, I saw how kids were overlooked because of the class size,” says Diane. “The teachers just didn’t have the ability or the time to focus on every student that needed attention.”
The Paradowskis were interested in home schooling their children, but Diane says she was uncomfortable with having to select, purchase and teach a school curriculum. She learned of WCA through friends and enrolled Seth and Dana. When the family moved from Oak Creek to Mount Pleasant four and a half years ago, Seth and Dana stayed with WCA.
In late summer each year, WCA ships the family textbooks, workbooks and related materials for the school year. The virtual school program provides them with a computer and a printer and subsidizes the family’s Internet access. All of this, plus the school’s tuition, is paid by state aid (currently $6,796 per student.)
At about 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, Seth and Dana log in and indicate that they are present for the day. Each has a separate calendar showing their daily reading assignments for as well as upcoming quizzes and tests.
Staying connected electronically
Although the students and their teachers are connected electronically, Diane says the instruction is heavily tied to the textbooks, which allows Seth and Dana to work at their own pace. When they complete an assignment in language arts, science, social studies or math, they’re required to take an online quiz.
Longer tests, essays and projects are mailed in with postpaid envelopes provided by the school. The teachers review, grade and mail back the materials. Parents have access to electronic files containing all of their children’s tests and scores.
The teachers are available when a student gets stumped. “Whenever I have a problem, I can email or talk to the teacher,” says Seth.
Diane Paradowski says she’s been very pleased with the responsiveness of the WCA staff. “We’ve had a number of times when they’ve had to walk through something with the teacher and they’ve always been available.”
The students are required to attend at least one online class weekly. In those sessions, they use a headset and microphone to talk with the teacher. Special software makes it possible for the teacher to place materials, such as math problems, directly onto the computer during the class.
The students’ homeroom teacher calls Seth and Dana—and their parents—every other week to discus how they’re progressing. “I think they’re getting more one-on-one with their teachers than they’d be getting in a (traditional) classroom,” says Diane.
Seth, an eighth-grader who likes playing baseball, has excelled in math. This year, he’s part of a group of just four WCA students who are enrolled in an advanced algebra class.
Dana, who is in seventh grade, also likes math. For a health class, she tackled a research project focused on the effect that automobiles have on the environment.
Three to four times a year, the Paradowskis take field trips where they meet other WCA students and their WCA teachers. Diane says with their circle of friends from the neighborhood and church, they certainly don’t feel isolated.
Flexibility is key
“A nice thing is the flexibility. They can work ahead if they want to. If there’s something we need to do as a family, we can work four days instead of five,” says Diane.
Flexibility is a key factor behind the popularity of virtual schools, says Kelly Prochop, Racine Unified School District virtual learning administrator. RUSD reported 222 students enrolled in state virtual charter schools in the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year for which statistics were available.
Since arriving at RUSD in December, Prochop has reached out to some families that currently have students enrolled in virtual school programs. He says health issues and a need for more academic choices often play a role in choosing virtual learning.
“It all comes down to flexibility—whether you flex the student’s day, the class schedule or the calendar,” he says.
RUSD recently joined the Wisconsin eSchool Network, a cooperative venture with 10 other school districts, to provide online courses for middle and high school students. Starting in 2011-12, the arrangement is intended to provide more options for students and families.
Open enrollment deadline approaching
Wisconsin has 15 virtual charter schools, located in all corners of the state. Families may apply to attend these schools—with tuition and materials covered by state—during the Feb. 7-25 open enrollment period.
But families considering this option should act quickly, says Julie Thompson of Cross Plains, vice president and treasurer of the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, a statewide support and advocacy organization. That’s because state law caps the number of students that can attend virtual schools through open enrollment at 5,250.
“It’s a huge pain the butt for students and families,” Thompson says. Families who enroll children in virtual schools for the first time may have to wait for months to know if there is space available in the program they’ve selected.
Last year, there was an initial waiting list of about 1,200 to 1,500 students, which eventually disappeared as the state’s virtual schools found room for all enrollees. The waiting lists made it hard for families to plan ahead for the upcoming school year.
“Families with multiple kids might get one in one school and the other two or three end up someplace else,” she says. “We’re really, really hoping the Legislature just lifts the cap.”
Thompson says that Gov. Scott Walker supports lifting the cap and Republican legislators have promised to introduce legislation this session.
Meanwhile, the virtual school career is winding for Seth and Dana. They’ll be attending traditional schools next school year and their little sister, Christy, 4, will start kindergarten as the Paradowski family starts a new chapter.
“Virtual school has worked very well for us,” says Diane.
To learn more about the Wisconsin Connection Academy, visit http://www.connectionsacademy.com/wisconsin-school/home.aspx, the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, http://www.wivirtualschoolfamilies.org/ or the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction—open enrollment at http://dpi.state.wi.us/sms/psctoc.html