Virtual makeover: Open enrollment, online schools alter education landscape

Susan Troller

Eighth-grader James Roll enjoys learning math, science, English and social studies through an online school that lets him learn at his own pace using a computer at home. But he says he likes the art and music classes at what he calls “real school” — Kromrey Middle School in Middleton — even more.
James is a pioneer of sorts, and so is the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, when it comes to computer-based, or virtual, learning.
This year, Middleton launched its 21st Century eSchool. It’s one of just a dozen virtual schools in Wisconsin, and the second in Dane County; last year the McFarland School District became the sponsoring district for the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), which opened for the 2009-2010 school year with about 400 students and this year counts twice that many.
The two schools share several key elements: They offer a broad range of online courses, beginning at the kindergarten level and continuing all the way through high school, employ licensed Wisconsin teachers to oversee online learning, and require that students participate in mandatory testing each year.
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Hughes’ obvious irritation was fueled by recent open enrollment figures showing that Madison has lost more than 150 students to McFarland, both to the Wisconsin Virtual Academy and to McFarland bricks-and-mortar schools.
Hughes expanded on his frustration in a recent piece he wrote for his Ed Hughes School Blog: “Since we have to send about $6,800 per student to districts that receive our open enrollers, this means that we’ll be cutting a (perhaps figurative) check in excess of $1,000,000 to the McFarland School District.”
But McFarland Superintendent Scott Brown says his district is only getting $300 to $350 per student per year from the online school and says the Wisconsin Virtual Academy is not necessarily poaching students from the traditional classroom. “Schools like WIVA have brought a lot of students who may not have been under the tent of public education into school districts like ours.

More options for our children is great for them, parents, business, our communities and taxpayers.
With respect to Ed’s post, providing alternative models at what appears to be substantially lower cost than Madison’s annual $15K per student expenditures is good for all of us, particularly the students.
The financial aspects of the open enrollment and alternative education models gets to the heart of whether traditional districts exist to promote adult employment or student education.
The Khan Academy is worth a visit.. Standing in front of new education models and more choices for our children is a losing proposition. Just yesterday, Apple, Inc. announced the end of hard drives for volume computers with the introduction of a flash memory based notebook. Certainly, hard drive manufacturers will be fighting over a smaller market, but, new opportunities are emerging. Some will take advantage of them, others won’t. Education is no different.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Jim Zellmer’s commentary here. The questions that should be front and center are not “how much profit goes to the school district that we’re losing students to?” or “how much are their teachers paid?” or “is the online curriculum provider a for-profit corporation?” but “Why are families making the choice to exit our district?”, “What are the concerns and issues experienced by families in our district which are eroding their loyalty?” and “What are we doing to elicit, listen to and respond in a meaningful way to those concerns?” The good news is that schools, families and entrepreneurs around the country (and beyond) are actively trying out ways in which online learning can improve education. I hope that the opportunities to learn from and take advantage of the successes from those experiments won’t be lost by interposing barriers to entry, whether institutional or attitudinal.

  • Larry Winkler

    Chan raises the questions which I think should be answered, but I believe I know some of the answers, which I will answer by asking more questions?
    Why does advertising work? Why is it that the substantial preponderance of Americans believe that science is just another belief system? Why is it that Americans believe, especially those who are well-off and educated, that vaccines are a conspiracy of the drug companies and it is safer to let Nature take her course? Why do Americans believe that unregulated and unproven dietary supplements are effective and safe?
    Why is that 25% of the American public believe that Obama is Muslim? Why is it that substantial minority believe that Bush conspired in the 9/11 attack on the New York Towers? Why is it that a substantial number of Americans get their information from Fox News? Why is it a substantial number of Americans believe that the Fed Government is the cause of all our problems? Why do Americans believe that just because Americans once had a substantial cadre of intelligent scientists and engineers, contributing over generations to place a man on the moon, that the generations which came after are intelligent and dedicated enough to respond to Katrina, Haiti, and Deepwater Horizon? Why is that many Americans believe that actors who play the role of doctor on TV are really doctors? Or that “Reality TV” is reality.
    Why is that Americans believe that to lose weight we need to spend more money on research, diet books, pills, education, special classes in school, protest McDonalds and fast food companies, rather than the simple solution of stop eating like pigs? (Can anyone say “portion control”?).
    To answer Chan’s original question of why people are leaving the school district and into online classes or whatever. Some answers: Too many minorities, the liberals have taken God out of our schools, homosexuals, bad teachers, unions, a stranger with a lot of money told me, the school district is not MMSD. From MMSD on why one should stay, the answers are “we have a 5-year plan that will change everything”, “increasing minority enrollment”, “authentic assessment”, “new grading system”, “small class sizes”, “not enough money”, “we’re a data driven district”, “increase teacher training”, “new statewide tests”, “higher pay”, “more oversight of teachers”.
    I guess I cannot see how a new generation of kids can be taught and remain taught, when the previous 2 generations of Americans are not even remotely acquainted with substantive knowledge and their basic materials for acquiring knowledge are TV, People magazine and conspiracy theorists of all stripes.