Spotlight

Our Virtual Charter School

by William R. Harbron

The Northern Ozaukee School District took a bold step in January 2003 by contacting K12 Inc. about entering into a cooperative agreement to operate a virtual charter school for K-8 students in Wisconsin. Our district had no previous experience with virtual education, but we felt this was an opportunity worth investigating.

During a whirlwind three-week period, the school board, administrative team and K12 consultants explored the merits of our 850-student district, located 30 miles north of Milwaukee, hosting a virtual charter school that would be open to any child in the state.

K12, which was founded by William Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education, already had established virtual charter schools in other states, including California, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The company brought to the table knowledge about the operations of virtual charters and offered a comprehensive and rigorous curriculum that had been researched and developed specifically for online delivery.

Pros and Cons
Our district identified several advantages and opportunities: To apply the curriculum developed by K12, where appropriate, to traditional classrooms; to learn how to effectively personalize and manage a student's learning; to enter into the future of a virtual education delivery model; and to share resources between the virtual charter school and the three brick-and-mortar schools in our district, making both more cost effective.

Following three weeks of deliberations, the school board agreed to hold a public meeting to enable community members and other interested parties to voice their opinions about our proposal. We heard a mixture of viewpoints from those advocating that the board move forward to those opposing any delivery of online instruction. Advocates pointed to the advantages of partnering with K12 and viewed the establishment of a virtual charter school as the district's move into an innovative future. The opposition came from a faction of home schoolers who saw the program as a threat to their independence, leading to an eventual government takeover of home schools. Additional opposition was voiced by a small group of district teachers who supported the Wisconsin Education Association's stance of blocking the creation of virtual charter schools.

After examining the pros and cons, the Northern Ozaukee school board granted a charter for establishing the Wisconsin Virtual Academy in 2003. WIVA thus became the second statewide K-8 virtual charter school in Wisconsin. The first was the Connections Academy, started a year earlier by the Appleton Area School District.

The district and K12 developed a comprehensive five-year service agreement that details the relationship between the district and K12 in operating WIVA. Under the agreement, the school board remains in control of the school and has the final say in staffing, budgeting and operations of the school. K12 provides curriculum, professional development, marketing and public relations services, student recruitment and legal assistance.

Flexible Instruction
The Wisconsin Virtual Academy has completed its third year of operation. It has evolved into a strong and effective collaborative partnership between teachers and parents working to provide an effective educational program for their students.

Students work with online curriculum and lessons supported by offline instructional materials, parents and teachers. The virtual learning environment provides flexibility in meeting and responding to the students' educational needs. In addition, students participate in monthly field experiences with their classmates. Teachers facilitate online virtual classrooms for direct instruction and tutoring.

The three years have been a period of learning, developing and growing in the virtual environment. Due to the dedication of the WIVA administration and teachers, the virtual education delivery system continues to mature and evolve with an enrollment of 900 students expected this fall.

The design of the curriculum allows for the students' educational program to be personalized and self-paced, but new technologies continue to become available. The latest enhancement is the addition of Elluminate, a program that allows WIVA teachers to conduct online gatherings of up to 10 students and one-on-one tutoring. The software is especially suited for helping children who typically are learning alone at home to adapt to group sessions.

The virtual academy is exploring software that will allow for efficient scheduling of online classes as well as other programs that will further enhance online classes in managing the students' learning program.

Annually, WIVA establishes operational and educational SMART goals to assess the academic program and school's operation. Furthermore, survey data from parents, students and teachers gives additional insight.

The district has initiated discussions with K12 to consider implementation of a high school model in 2007-08. This will allow current students the option to continue with the K12 curriculum and expand the virtual school opportunity to those in the district's traditional high school.

Financial Offset
Virtual education is not without its critics. Under Wisconsin's open enrollment environment, students may apply to attend any school in the state, including a virtual school located hundreds of miles away. Wisconsin school districts now operate 11 virtual schools and others are considering adding online instruction.

Our district has weathered several attacks by opponents. The first was brought by the Wisconsin Education Association, which filed a lawsuit against the establishment of the school. After two years, the district prevailed.

The second attack was waged by other school districts that claimed we were enrolling their students to achieve economic advantage in our district. For each open-enrolled student, the district collects approximately $5,600 in state aid. These revenues pay for WIVA's faculty salaries and benefits, online curriculum, instructional materials, technical support services and general operations.
While money was not our motivation for opening the virtual academy, we have received an extra $120,000 annually toward the school district's operating fund, which offsets funding losses caused by declining enrollment in our brick-and-mortar schools.

WIVA is a look into the future of public education. Virtual education allows school districts to effectively personalize students' instruction and provide the necessary support to allow every student to be successful.

William Harbron is superintendent of the Northern Ozaukee School District, 401 Highland Drive, Fredonia, WI 53021. E-mail: wharbron@nosd.edu