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Wisconsin Adopts a Virtual Solution

Appleton goes online with the Connections Academy

The growth curve at the Wisconsin Connections Academy (WCA) — the state’s first combined charter and virtual K-8 school — is about as steep as it can be with enrollment nearly doubling in this, its second year of operation. Now serving more than 450 students statewide, the WCA is fast developing into a preferred alternative for a range of students and parents looking for a high-quality public education outside the traditional classroom. The costper- student to the district still remains under the comparable cost-per-student in a bricks-and-mortar school.

About half of WCA students were previously enrolled in other Wisconsin public schools, and the other half come from home-schooling backgrounds.

"Students do better academically with parental involvement and it's hard to imagine more involvement than this virtual school provides."

“A lot of us are independent spirits,” laughs Britta McColl, a homemaker and mother of seven (four are WCA students) in Cochrane, WI (pop. 440), who previously home-schooled her children, “but it’s been difficult to find the time and money to teach the children, create a first-rate curriculum and implement daily lesson plans.”

Her alternative is a flexible statefunded Connections Academy public charter model which delivers a comprehensive curriculum via the Internet, integrated with print and hands-on materials. The backbone of the program is the PC computer system that is configured with software, printer and online access settings provided to each student — at no cost to the family. The at-home focus of the WCA works for a range of students who require a flexible schedule, including those who are ahead or behind their peers in school, frequently miss school because of illness or other problems, travel extensively in pursuit of athletic or arts careers, or live in isolated rural areas.

“One of the best parts of the WCA is its basic premise that one size does not fit all, that children learn in different ways,” says Linda Dawson, assistant superintendent for school services for the Appleton Area School District, the manager of the state-approved and funded program. “Connections Academy offers individualized programs that defy easy categorization of its ‘typical’ student. One family enrolled their children in WCA during the three months they spent retracing the Lewis & Clark expedition. They would communicate with teachers via a laptop. Another student, a pianist who spends hours each day practicing at home, does her schoolwork on her schedule. Each situation is different and student and family diversity is the operative phrase.”

In fact, the Connections Academy was designed with flexibility and academic quality uppermost in mind. Using a sophisticated assessment program and continual one-on-one interaction with state-certified teachers (all instructors are employees of the Appleton district) WCA works with parents to develop a Personalized Learning Plan that identifies precisely what each student needs. Students study reading, language arts, math, science, social studies, music, art and physical education and work on real-life projects in their homes and local communities. In addition to personalized instruction, WCA provides the textbooks, workbooks, reading books, science experiments, CD’s and other offline materials students need.

Each WCA student has a Learning Coach — typically a parent — who is responsible for delivering instruction using WCA daily lesson plans and materials. WCA families across Wisconsin communicate via the Internet or phone with their Appleton-based teachers for expert guidance and to modify the lessons for their individual students.

“All studies have shown that kids do better academically when parents are involved,” says Karen Harkness, president of the WCA board. “We are seeing parents going on field trips, coordinating school projects and so on. It’s hard to imagine more parental involvement than this virtual school provides.”

Though too early to draw on more than anecdotal data, Ms. Dawson notes that many WCA students “are scoring well on state-mandated standardized testing.” One reason, she notes, is teachers at WCA spend less time on administration and more time in analyzing individual student performance. “Also, the students and the parents have an upbeat pioneering attitude that will likely be reflected in higher scores,” she adds. And the enthusiasm is shared by students who are creating “virtual” communities with other WCA participants by teaming up for field trips and extracurricular activities with nearby WCA peers, community service projects in their own neighborhoods, and frequent interaction with a diverse array of fellow students. Students also work together on online team projects coordinated by their teachers.

“My four kids are learning significantly more with WCA than they did when I was on my own,” says Mrs. McColl. “The supporting materials are of a higher quality than I could provide. When my other three kids are old enough to enter kindergarten, they will definitely be enrolled in WCA.”