Madison School District Virtual Learning

Jason Shephard:

One of the better-kept secrets in Madison is that the school district currently offers more than 100 online courses for city high school students. The program is called the Madison Virtual Campus.
“It turns out Madison is a leader in this technology,” says Johnny Winston Jr., the school board president. “My first question was, ‘Why don’t people know about this?’” He thinks virtual schools could help keep students who might leave for other options.
“As the second-largest school district in the state, we should be leading the way,” Winston says. “And to find out that yeah, we’re already doing this but nobody knows about it, I’m like, c’mon, let’s make this happen.”
But officials have purposely kept the program under wraps as they’ve fine-tuned it. There’s no mention of the program on the district’s Web site, and most parents have never heard of it. The district has spent five years building infrastructure, training staff and convincing stakeholders of the growing demand for virtual learning.
“We’re close to crossing a threshold in this district,” says Kelly Pochop, the district’s online learning facilitator. “Keep your ears open. We’re actively exploring options with our administrative team.”
The big question is how fast the district wants its students to take advantage of the Madison Virtual Campus. Currently, only eight high school students are taking online courses for credit. Another 14 middle school students are taking an online geometry course through the Kiel school district, with a Madison teacher providing support, to meet demands by the local teachers union.

23 thoughts on “Madison School District Virtual Learning”

  1. And here is the link to this semester’s online offerings for middle school students through the District Co-ops program of the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY).
    See especially the offerings for CESA 2 — Madison is in CESA 2. If you recall, the MMSD provides financial support for other programs offered by WCATY.
    Academically advanced middle school students throughout the state participate in the WCATY District Co-op online program and are allowed to use them as “curriculum replacement”; that is, these students are allowed to take the WCATY courses instead of their regular language arts class.
    Academically advanced middle school students in the MMSD, in contrast, are not allowed to use the WCATY courses as curriculum replacement. Any MMSD middle school student who chooses to take a WCATY online course does so at their own expense and on their own time, that is, in addition to their regular schooling.

  2. Does anyone know anything about the on-line geometry class that the middle schoolers are taking? When my daughter took geometry as an 8th grader, the district provided transportation to East. Apparently, that is too expensive to do now, so the Black Hawk kids who qualified to take geometry are doing an on-line course this year. I’m assuming it must be connected to the virtual school some how….it wouldn’t make sense for it to be a separate program.

  3. Jill: the Black Hawk and O’Keefe kids who take Geo in 8th grade do so via an online class offered by the Kiel School District and supported by an MMSD staff person (not sure who).

  4. David,
    Do you know why students don’t take the course through the MMSD virtual school?
    Do you know whether the MMSD pays the Kiel school district?
    Could you ask someone downtown if you don’t know and then post the answers?

  5. I assume also that the “14 middle schoolers” taking on-line math does not include anyone other than those 8th graders? There is at least one more on-line math offering available to a few students, right? I know one of those students myself (my son), and he is not taking geometry. But this may be a whole different question/option than this “virtual schooling” one, because it is not like he is not at a public middle school for all other subjects.
    Also, I assume MMSD pays the Kiel school district for this course. The students’ whole state money allotment would follow them if they were allowed to attend a “virtual school” program through another district, and it does not sound like this is what’s happening, but instead that it is only the one course.

  6. Go to MMSD website and type ‘online geometry’, to see a Hamilton parent letter about course offerings. For their online geometry, they use Discovering Geometry. Go to to see more about this. You can’t see the actual book w/o a password, but you can view condensed lessons, homework, etc. to get a good idea of what the course is like. I don’t know if this is the same course that Blackhawk uses.
    MMSD is replacing traditional geometry texts with Discovering Geometry in its high-school classes. From a cursory glance, this book doesn’t appear quite as bad as Discovering Algebra, but there is more emphasis on ‘investigations’ and concrete applications and less on proof. It is written at a somewhat lower level than, for example, McDougal Littell’s Geometry by Jurgenson/Brown, which introduces trigonometric concepts early in the book so that they can be used later in the development of areas of polygons, etc.
    In Discovering Geometry, the basic trig is near the end of the book, so not used much. The final chapter of Discovering Geometry is about proof-writing, and is very nice. It’s too bad that they couldn’t have put it at the beginning so that the students could practice their proof-writing throughout the course.

  7. Here is the current status of middle school geometry in the MMSD:
    Jefferson, Hamilton and Cherokee have teacher-taught classes in geometry; Sennett students who are ready for geometry go over to LaFollette.
    Fourteen students (12 eighth graders, 1 seventh grader and 1 sixth grader) at five middle schools (Blackhawk, Toki, Spring Harbor, Whitehorse and O’Keefe) are taking an online course. I’m pretty sure this is the first year for this option.
    The online geometry students at each school are scheduled for math at the same time and so work side-by-side in their school library. Thus far, there have not been any District-wide, whole-group sessions (and I don’t think any are planned — probably this is less necessary for geometry than for, say, an online language arts course, where discussion is a central part of the learning).
    In fact, the online geometry course is not the one offered through the MMSD’s “Digital Districts.” (I do not know why, but have asked the question of someone downtown.) It’s a curriculum from Florida Virtual Schools and it’s taught through the “e-school” in Kiel, WI. The teacher is a Kiel employee. MMSD TAG staff (specifically, Ted Widerski, the MMSD TAG person for our middle and high schools and former longtime math teacher extraordinaire at LaFollette) visits the students once a week. Ted issues grades for the students, based on the work graded by the Kiel teacher.
    Middle school students who are working beyond geometry — I don’t know how many that is in the District this year, though it should be easy to find out (again, I have asked and am waiting for an answer) — have all kinds of arrangements, depending on their level and school.

  8. Laurie,
    I’m delighted to hear of the variety of options and flexibility. How do students learn about the options? Do you know? Are the options posted on the MMSD Web site?

  9. Laurie, so are you saying that at Hamilton, Cherokee, and Jefferson, that the textbook and other materials are available online as well as the hard copies, but the class is taught by an on-site teacher? And that the other schools have students actually viewing a teacher on a screen? I think there is confusion among some parents at Cherokee, who have the impression that their children will get an online geometry course when they reach 8th grade.

  10. Cherokee has a regular classroom Geometry course taught by a great teacher. There is no online component at this time.

  11. Celeste, my understanding is that there is a geometry class at Cherokee, just as there is at Hamilton and Jefferson, taught by a member of each school’s math department. The text used at Hamilton is “Discovering Geometry” (which my high schooler described as decidedly lacking in rigor, compared to the correspondence course he took as an 8th grader through the Center for Talent Development). I don’t think there is an online component, but I suppose I could be wrong. (I’m pretty sure there wasn’t last year, when my younger son took the course.)
    How do students and their families find out about the geometrey option? Well, if the student has done well enough on the District-wide end-of-fifth-grade math assessment to be placed into 7th grade CMP math as a 6th grader, then they have the option of taking algebra as a 7th grader and geometry as an 8th grader. (At each of those two choice points, I believe they can also choose the appropriate grade level CMP, instead.) The mode of curriculum delivery — e.g., classroom with a teacher versus online — depends on the number of students at the school in need of the advanced curriculum. It’s not that families get to choose. There may also be an issue of whether or not there’s a teacher at the school who can teach geometry and is certified to do so.
    The end-of-fifth grade math assessment has resulted in an increase in 7th graders taking algebra and 8th graders taking geometry across the District, I’m pretty sure. That’s how the numbers have grown so large at some schools to warrant an actual class.
    As for options beyond geometry for middle schoolers, this is highly dependent on what schools the student has attended previously, who their teachers and TAG teacher were, the attitude at their elementary school regarding acceleration, parental advocacy, etc. IMHO, there is a real equity problem here. And I say that as the mother of two sons who have benefited from the INSTEP process (in math, at least). In general, as I have learned more and more about the issues District-wide and gotten to know more and more families from different schools, I am struck by how different the opportunities are for equally high performing students from different parts of the District. It’s always a difficult choice: does one expose the inequity, in hopes of making the same opportunity available to all students? Or is the risk of having it taken away where it does exist too great? (I would be interested in people’s thoughts on this.)
    True story: the first year that the District-wide end-of-fifth-grade math assessment was given, the test was heavily CMP-based. Some west side families found out about that beforehand and were able to prepare their children for the new style of presentation. Most families in the District were clueless about the test that would be used. Guess which kids did better? The next year — which was the year our younger son was a fifth grader — I did everything I could think of to make the 6th grade CMP books available to ANY family in the District who was interested in using them. Then, shortly before the test date, we were told that a new, non-CMP based test was going to be used, one that was developed to evaluate true conceptual understanding and did not require familiarity with CMP. I couldn’t have been more relieved and more pissed, all at the same time! But clearly that was the right way to go. It also took a couple of years before every single MMSD fifth grader truly had the opportunity to take the test.
    For students who do not meet criteria and thus go into 6th grade CMP as 6th graders, I’m pretty sure they nevertheless get a choice between algebra and 8th grade CMP, as 8th graders. That’s how it goes at Hamilton, at any rate. It may well be different at the different middle schools.
    Ed, I wish I could say all of this information is widely available and easily accessible; but I don’t think that it is. My best guess is that there is a lot of variability across the District with regard to how much of this information flows outward, and how easily.

  12. Thanks for the info Marcia. What book do they use? Do they have enough students to make up a full class every year? Who is the teacher?

  13. Friends, it appears that the geometry course listed in the MMSD “Digital Districts” online catalog is actually the Florida Virtual Schools course offered through the Kiel, WI, school district. (At least, that’s what I understood the answer I received from someone downtown to mean.) MMSD pays $290 per student per semester to the Kiel School District, but is hoping to train MMSD teachers to teach the course in the future. (I must say, this arrangement is somewhat confusing to me. Now I’m curious about the other “Digital Districts” courses.)
    On another matter, District-wide, this year there are 8 middle school students taking math courses beyond geometry. Four are getting tutored, four are attending classes at their high schools. It is anticipated that 12 middle school students will be beyond geometry next year.
    In addition, District-wide, three middle school students are taking science classes at their high schools.

  14. Thanks for looking into this Laurie. I took a look at that Florida Virtual School course. Very different from what I’m used to. I am afraid I am woefully ignorant of the various options. Since I had already decided to transfer our daughter by the time she passed that test, I didn’t look into what’s available. But I do still have an MMSD 4th grader, so need to keep up better.
    Part of the problem is that I feel like I’m a bothersome parent who thinks my kids are smarter than they are when I start asking a lot of questions, so there is a big hurdle for me to overcome to do that. This may be partly an internally generated feeling, but only partly. The TAG resource people and everyone else in the district are stretched pretty thin right now, and it is my impression that these days they don’t have enough time and energy to spend on options for kids who are only 1-2 grade levels ahead. Our former TAG staff person was not particularly encouraging, although I understand that some others are great. I believe that INSTEP process is so time-consuming that in many cases a parent will only find out about it from another parent unless the child is at least least 3-4 years advanced. Granted, it’s pretty easy to see on MMSD website, but still, no one is advertising.
    In regards to that test, I was moderately irritated by the parent pre-test letter. The sample problems they show are great problems, but much more difficult than anything they are likely to encounter in CMP. It looks like an attempt to lull parents of kids who don’t pass into thinking the middle-school math is more difficult than it actually is. But it is positive that they are making an effort in this area, which has, as you noted, increased the number of students who move ahead.
    At our elementary school there has been some fitful progress in math for the 4/5’s, but it seems to be more of individual teachers’ effort than centrally directed.

  15. I should add that the District-wide end-of-fifth-grade math assessment has also increased the diversity of students who move ahead in math. It’s a good example of the sort of inclusive, system-wide assessment that many experts (for example, Donna Ford of Vanderbilt) advocate for increasing minority student participation in ALL high-end educational programs and classes — though ideally, such identification would happen well before fifth grade, there would be multiple assessment times (that is, not just fifth grade), and the focus wouldn’t be on a single content area.
    Another really great thing about this approach is that it doesn’t require parental advocacy for a student to get their academic needs met. Heavy reliance on parental advocacy (which clearly includes access to information) almost always produces unequal access to opportunity in our District — unequal access across race, SES, side of town, possibly gender, etc.
    I’m not saying the math assessment is perfect or the solution to all of our problems, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

  16. It occurs to me that I may have inadvertently given the impression that each and every fifth grader takes a 6th grade math placement test at the end of fifth grade. Not so. What happens is that certain performance criteria (math grades or standardized test scores) are used to identify students who might be advanced enough to skip over 6th grade math. The families of those students are sent a letter explaining the situation and inviting the student to take the placement test. The families of students who do not meet the criteria for receiving the first letter receive a different letter, explaining the situation and making it clear that their child is also welcome to take the placement test, if the family would like them to (this is what’s called “parent referral”). The bottom line is that every fifth grade student has access to the test, though not all fifth graders take it.
    I hope that’s more clear.

  17. I know a little bit about this. We’ve been a participating district in the consortium that has been the incubator for this initiative. The start-up costs to this point have been grant funded. Specifically, competitive federal Title IID EETT grants like this one
    This has been a multi-year process of building capacity in terms of infrastructure, practices, and training. Developing awareness among teachers and broadening sponsorship within district leadership has been a gradual process. Focal points have been professional development for teachers, serving at-risk and alternative school students, serving students in need of advanced courses, and serving students considering technical careers.
    Now that Madison is making the leap into a fully developed virtual program, I’m guessing there will be changes as this scales up. I’m sure grant funding will be utilized as much as possible, but if this is a large initiative I would think some general fund dollars would have to go into the mix. I don’t have first hand knowledge on this, because what is now being developed is greater in scope than the consortium. In a sense, Madison is the first bird to leave the nest.

  18. Thanks, Tim. You beat me to the punch (and are clearly much better informed). Additional emails back-and-forth with someone downtown yesterday clarified for me that the “Digital Districts” is much bigger than the MMSD. (It’s also a very different beast from the MMSD’s new Virtual Campus.) Tim, what can you tell us about the courses selected for inclusion? Who develops them? Who reviews them? And so forth.
    Given the current discussion about the Youth Options Program and high school credit, I wonder, will credit be given for “Digital Districts” courses? What if a middle school student takes an AP or other clearly advanced course? Janet, what do you think?

  19. Laurie,
    What’s the difference between MMSD’s “Virtual Campus” and “Digital Districts?”
    Is the Virtual Campus another example of the MMSD re-inventing the wheel, as it usually does, in order to keep outsiders out?

  20. Oops! My mistake, Ed. I was thinking of something else that’s new this year called the “Infinite Campus.” The Infinite Campus is — in my 11th grader’s words — the District’s new “student management” system. It’s a way for students and their parents/guardians to easily check on the student’s grades, attendance, assignments, etc. The Virtual Campus is something else — it has, as its course catalog, what is known statewide as Digital Districts. Both (well, actually all three) can be found on the District’s website.
    Virtual Campus, Infinite Campus … I trust you can understand my confusing the two.

  21. Laurie,
    Quality virtual courses require serious development, so one thing you see is that there are a few major primary providers of virtual content whose courses are distributed through other virtual schools. That’s not as redundant as it might seem because there are local elements that are generally important to the success of a virtual learning environment. The local factors include student selection (not all students thrive on virtual coursework), matching the student to the courses best suited for them, and the local teacher, who can be an important support and facilitator for the learning experience.
    Up to now, Madison has developed few, if any, of the student courses that have been offered. That’s not unusual. However, efforts have been made to train staff to support and create virtual courses, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Madison offer more locally developed courses going forward. While some might see this as re-inventing the wheel, there is a case to be made for a course tailored to local needs with a stronger local teacher role vs. something off the shelf from a national virtual provider.
    One of the unique aspects of Madison’s efforts to date, and a positive one, is that every course offered had been reviewed by a Wisconsin licensed teacher for content and standards alignment. Some review was by active staff, much of it by retired staff. The courses offered are those that passed review and met identified areas of need. If there are needed additions to their catalog, I’m sure they would be interested in suggestions.
    Waunakee’s situation is different than Madison’s in that we have a very, very high percentage of student households with Internet access and also have BadgerNet distance education (video) courses at our High School to address some of our elective needs. As a result, while we have a few students taking virtual courses, our initiatives have been more around virtual professional development for teachers and blended instruction for students, using SharePoint and, recently, Moodle to extend face-to-face classes with more of a web presence.
    My understanding is that Moodle is going to be a major application for Virtual Campus. This suggests to me that the plan is to have more locally generated content.
    Ed, I think you misunderstand MMSD’s overall strategy. Or at least as I perceive it. Madison is the largest area district by far with some unique capabilities due to its size. Madison faces some very difficult choices in meeting new instructional needs while trying to maintain existing programs under the revenue cap. As a result, Madison develops initiatives where it is the lead district and then tries to recruit other districts as partners to recoup fixed costs. Lawson would be one example and I can think of one or two others. Madison doesn’t like to pay out for overhead and likes to scale with partners to defray overhead. That’s my personal take.

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