Wisconsin Virtual Learning: A School of Choice

As an American growing up in the public school systems, I frequently heard how I needed to value my education. I’m sure that similar phrases of prodded value were told by adults to adolescents around the world, that an education is not something to squander. Yet, despite this appreciation, the American public school system has been under scrutiny, seemingly, forever. Charter schools or “schools of choice” were introduced as an answer to a call for system reform and, like any public sector change, has been met with its fair amount of resistance.

Such was the case with Wisconsin Virtual Learning, a charter school of the Northern Ozaukee School District, when they opened in 2003. As Geoffrey Canada mentions in his TED talk from just a few weeks back, charter schools are rarely recognized for their success but frequently pointed to if they fail. That coupled with a hesitancy toward change may explain why the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) sued the charter school as it opened to try and get it shut down. 

Jessica Berish is the Director of Admissions and Marketing for Wisconsin Virtual Learning

Jessica Berish is the Director of Admissions and Marketing for Wisconsin Virtual Learning

Jessica Berish, the Director of Admissions and Marketing for WisconsinVL, said “It resulted in continuous checks to make sure that it was successful. We had a full scale review to ensure our students were matching if not exceeding students in traditional brick and mortar locations as well as yearly test score reviews.” The conclusion of the reviews? The virtual learning program has seen repeated and growing success year after year (for a full timeline, click here).

It continues to operate with state funding although hasn’t necessarily gained the support of the teacher’s union; last week WEAC quoted Scott Wittkopf in an article that “the resources being diverted from schools of poverty into non-traditional alternative education programs are producing questionable results with little to no accountability for the state funding they receive.”

Regardless of the conflicting opinions, however, the schools of choice methodology “is a good thing as it creates competition among schools,” Jessica said. “You can’t just assume that the kid who lives on the corner will necessarily enroll in your school. You have to present it as the best option to get those great students.” If my two cents count, I agree that competition among schools betters the outlook for our country’s education systems and creates greater accountability among teachers and administrators.

So what is a virtual education?

Wisconsin Virtual Learning is a public charter school that operates wherever a student can find internet access. The school provides each student with a laptop, printer, and scanner and allows students to access the classroom and curriculum online by logging into BlackBoard Collaborate.

“It sounds strange to people who are unfamiliar with the program, but it feels very much like a regular classroom,” Jessica told me. “The students are able to work together with their teachers and their classmates through our online platform.  It is refreshing to see them form relationships based on their thoughts, feelings, and mutual interests instead of what they're wearing and who their other friends may be.  We also make sure to have structured social situations both online and offline so that component isn’t missed in their educations."

The style of education is also better suited for the children and families for which the traditional model doesn’t fit as well. For families previously homeschooling children, it gives them a proven curriculum that they don’t have to pay for. Those families also have the assurance that the school is constantly looking to improve that curriculum and stay up to date on those developments. Virtual learning also works for families who need flex scheduling because of travel demands or who have children with medical or special needs where working from a home environment is more conducive.

“I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t for everybody,” Jessica said. “As with most education systems, virtual learning works best when the students have involved parents especially in the earlier years.” It’s a great alternative for kids who are moving faster through curriculum and don’t want to be held back by classmate limitations.

Moving forward in education, Jessica sees the relationship between education and technology growing stronger. “It’s the way kids communicate and we can’t ignore that in education. It needs to become a part of what we do.”

Booking Registration and Scheduling Sessions Online

“We’ve used checkAppointments for 3 years in a row now to handle the volume of enrollments that we face each spring for the following school year,” Jessica said commenting that in the enrollment period it’s important to have that face to face meeting. “It’s a huge convenience for us and the parents and reduces a lot of man hours and accidental double bookings.”

Before using online booking, the school secretary had a spreadsheet that even the best accountants would have had a hard time rivaling. “Parents would call in and if she wasn’t at her desk they’d leave a message and it was incredibly time consuming having to call each one back,” Jessica said remarking on how keen a mind would have to be to filter so much coming at her. “There was a tab for each location which made it confusing and then she’d also spend what would add up to hours sending email confirmations and reminders.”

When Jessica got onboard at WisconsinVL, she thought there had to be a better way to handle the volume. She got the idea for online appointments while booking an appointment through a spa’s website, “Suddenly it was just like ‘Aha, why can’t we do this?’” and she began a search for the right tool for the school.

“I realized we had a unique situation and some crazy scheduling needs so we were looking for a system that could handle that. Scheduling appointments online has worked out great and checkAppointments has wonderful customer service,” she said. “Now, we don’t have to even think about it – it’s effortless. We save a lot of time not having to send out the reminders to staff and to the parents. checkAppointments takes care of it for us.”

Wisconsin Virtual Learning has used checkAppointments since March 2011.