Parents looking for stability turn to homeschooling and established virtual schools

Originally published by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – September 22, 2020

Stability. Safety. Are these too much to ask from schooling this year?

They are certainly in short supply, pretty much across America. Uncertainty and stress continue to hang over almost any path school districts, parents and kids are taking.

Not surprisingly, an increased number of parents are looking to the few routes that offer steady plans for a semester or longer.

To name two: Virtual schools in Wisconsin are seeing large increases in enrollment this fall. And there will be a substantial increase in the number of kids being home-schooled.

Both streams of education remain small overall. Even with increased enrollment, it appears they will account for less than 2% of the total elementary and high school enrollment in Wisconsin, which is close to a million kids.

Fueling the trend toward virtual or homeschooling is the continuing worry among many parents about sending kids to school in person. A Marquette Law School Poll released on Wednesday found that the percentage of Wisconsin adults with school-age children who said they were not comfortable with sending kids to school increased from 45% in early August to 54% in late August and early September.

What is a virtual school? These aren’t schools that have switched to virtual options because of the pandemic. These are schools, many more than a decade old, that provide remote programs, including using the internet for classes with teachers and assigning work to be done at home.

Wisconsin’s open enrollment law is central to attracting virtual students. In short, a school board can authorize a virtual operator to run a charter school that offers programs entirely remotely. Students from anywhere in the state can apply.

The vast majority of virtual students — 99% in some cases — are from other school districts and probably never visit the school’s base in person. The school gets public funding, there is no tuition, and students take the state’s standardized tests, with the school’s overall results made public.

Nationwide, virtual schools have had uneven and sometimes poor records of academic success. Some of that may lie in the quality of some school operations. Much of it may lie in the situations of the kid who enroll.

Some students thrive in virtual settings. Some were not thriving in their prior conventional schools. Like at any school, active involvement is a key to success — and that can be hard to achieve remotely.

Virtual schools vs homeschooling

Virtual schooling is quite different from homeschooling. Wisconsin allows parents to teach their children at home, although they have to file a form to notify the state. In homeschooling, parents set the program. In a virtual school, principals and teachers set the program. Homeschoolers do not get public funding and do not take state tests.

Enrollment totals for this year are not set yet. This Friday, Sept. 18, is the official attendance day for all schools in the state.

But it is clear that both virtual schooling and homeschooling will be up.

The state Department of Public Instruction said that, as of Aug. 31, it had received 7,735 homeschooling notifications, compared to 4,608 at the same point last year. And there had been 5,564 applications for open enrollment to virtual schools, compared to 3,686 the prior year. Final numbers are almost certain to be higher.

In addition, the Wisconsin Parents Association, a homeschooling organization, said it had been experiencing a 40% increase in traffic on its website since mid-March, when conventional schools shut their doors.

Why are parents choosing virtual schools this year? Cynthia Worden, principal of the high school program at Wisconsin Virtual Academy and two other smaller virtual high schools, all based in the Madison suburb of McFarland, said, “If families are questioning what’s happening locally for them, they are moving in our direction … I do think it’s a parental concern for the health and safety of their children and their families.”

The three high schools and a grade school, generally known as WIVA, have been chartered by the McFarland School District since 2009. They had about 1,700 students last year, about half in the high schools and half in kindergarten through eighth grade. This year, elementary enrollment has about doubled, with a small increase in high school enrollment.

At eAchieve Academy, which is chartered by the Waukesha School District, enrollment last year was about 800, interim principal Jason Smith said. It had reached about 1,100 by early August.

Then the Waukesha district decided to offer options to parents, including encouraging them to make a semester-long commitment to virtual schooling. The result: About 800 more students enrolled in eAchieve, which has hired 16 new teachers and brought on four other teachers from the conventional Waukesha schools.

Why did parents choose eAchieve? Smith said a big reason is that “if they’re going to have kids get virtual education, they’d prefer a more stable and longer experienced program.”

Mike Leach, principal of Wisconsin Virtual Learning, chartered by the Northern Ozaukee School District, said, “We are seeing a pretty massive increase.” Last year, the K-12 school had 330 students. He said that this year, the total is about 450. As at the McFarland schools, he said the increase was almost all at elementary levels.

What will the new students do when and if in-person schooling resumes? All the school leaders interviewed agreed that some students will return to their community schools.

“There will be some course correction,” Leach said. “I would hope that maybe we could keep half of those because they would realize that it works.”

Leach also serves as principal of Ozaukee High School, a 225-student conventional school that has been operating in person and, he said, doing well. That means he sees both sides of things and respects the different choices parents are making.

He also sees what teachers are taking on. Leach said, “It’s amazing to see on both sides of my life the hard work and dedication of teachers.”

To learn more about Wisconsin Virtual Academy, visit https://wiva.k12.com/

Featured Articles