Education trend: virtual charter schools - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Education trend: virtual charter schools

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MADISON (WKOW) -- "Kid drama" has pushed some parents to learn more about virtual charter schools, a growing trend in education.

"She has a child in her class that has some issues and he kind of seems to dominate the class with his problems," Theresa Bernstein said about her eight-year-old daughter Kjersten.

For East High School student James Selbrede, the problem lies within the class sizes.  

"I feel like I'm hidden in a corner and they can't see me when I'm raising my hand," Selbrede said.

His mother Jamie Hikes said James has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and could benefit from online learning because it could help him feel more relaxed and therefore more able to learn.  

"James is supposed to be getting special education, more one-on-one help, but he doesn't feel like he's getting any more help than anyone else," Hikes said.

Monday, parents such as Hike attended an information session put on by the Advanced Learning Academy of Wisconsin, a Barron-based K-12 charter school available to all Wisconsin residents. It's a public school, and therefore tuition free.

The virtual charter school works like this: the school sends a laptop to a student, who then takes lessons online with oversight from a parent and teachers who work remotely.

"They have tutors for every subject, and teachers who seem like they're more one-on-one, able to be there for him, and give him exactly what he needs to learn," Hikes said.

This is the second year for ALAW, which started with about 30 students. A year later, it's more than tripled its enrollment, providing personalized education to about 100 students.

"It's great that education is going in a direction where you can personalize. The 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the afternoon isn't for everybody," ALAW program co-coordinator Tenille Roper said, referring to the courses and customized schedules and to-do lists a student can look at when he or she logs in.  

ALAW has contracts with two educational services: Pearson's Connections Learning, which provides courses to students from kindergarten to 6th grade, and Brigham Young University, which handles students 7th through 12th grade. 

Students also have access to electives such as music courses from Juilliard and core classes from Discovery, among other curriculum partners.

Virtual charter schools, however, are not for everyone, Roper warns. She said the student must be a self-starter and have self-discipline.

"There are some teenagers who are saying, ‘Sweet, I can go to school in my pajamas!' When they start out it's a really great idea, but when it gets down to the "I've got to get these lessons done" they find that it may not be the best fit," Roper said.  

Socialization remains a concern as well.

"There is definitely that 'Eek! I don't want to be that awkward home schooled kid.' We have some students who go to Barron High School every day and take some classes on site and some online, so they'll socialize that way," Roper said. ALAW also organizes field trips and pen pal programs so students can stay social. 

Truancy is one of ALAW's biggest challenges, according to Roper, because attendance is measured more so by a student's improvement than the time he or she spends in front of the computer.

"Progress is how we measure our attendance. If they're not making progress, that's when we step in and say, ‘I haven't seen you logging into your classes in the last five days. Is there something going on? Let's set up a web conference," Roper said.

Still, Wisconsin requires a student to attend 150 days, according to Roper. Because charter schools are public, online schools like ALAW are required to provide students with Wisconsin-certified teachers and curriculums that meet state standards. Students also must take state standardized tests.

Jamie Hikes said her son James is nearly ready to sign on to a virtual school; however, "the only concern I have is that it's something new," Hikes said, of the young program.

Theresa Bernstein says she needs more time yet to think about enrolling Kjersten, but said, "this might work for her in that she would have more structure but still be in the house."

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