Weber says district could offer its students a better alternative to virtual programs that result in failure for some
Michael Weber is recommending the Port Washington-Saukville School District consider creating an online school to better educate the relatively small but increasing number of local students who are enrolling in virtual schools — some only to fail and drop out.
“For some students, virtual schools are a viable option and they do succeed,” Weber said. “But it’s not a viable option for all students.
“We need to look at our programs and the opportunities we’re offering to stop some of our students from going into virtual schools and into environments that for some of them make it very difficult to succeed.”
Weber’s proposal received initial support from the School Board Monday, but before it goes any further, it will need the formal approval of the board and significant research to determine if such a program is viable, Weber said.
“I’m not sure if such a program has ever been tried in a public school before,” he said. “I haven’t heard of one.”
An online school run by the district would provide flexibility for conventional students to take some courses online, perhaps ones that are difficult to fit in their schedules, but it would also provide a better alternative to virtual schools operated by other entities throughout the state, Weber said.
Under Wisconsin’s open enrollment law, students can attend schools outside the districts where they reside at no cost, which means that students who live in the Port Washington-Saukville School District can enroll in virtual charter schools.
It’s one thing if they succeed in those programs, Weber said, but a concerning number of them don’t, and when they fail in the virtual school setting they return to the Port-Saukville schools woefully behind in credits and ill-prepared to meet academic expectations.
“I think the open enrollment concept has been great, but as it relates to virtual schools, it needs some significant reworking,” Weber said. “Virtual schools have no obligation or responsibility, other than intrinsic, to make sure students are successful.
“And the virtual school setting requires students to be self-motivated and responsible. It would be nice if there would be some screening system to determine if students are likely to succeed in such an environment.”
Those problems are exacerbated by the marketing done by virtual schools, Weber said.
“The marketing implies that virtual schools are for everyone and that anyone can be successful in such a setting,” he said. “That’s not entirely accurate, at least not in our experience.”
On Monday, the board approved, as it is required to by law, the requests of five students living in the Port-Saukville School District to attend the Wisconsin Virtual Academy administered by the McFarland School District.
One of those students, Weber said, is destined to become a statistic. While living in another school district, the student enrolled in a virtual school only to be dropped from the program. In the interim, one of his parents moved into the Port Washington-Saukville School District, making the teenager a Port-Saukville student who, if he washes out of another virtual school, could technically become a Port High dropout.
“We’ve never seen him, yet he is our student and we’re ultimately responsible for him,” Weber said.
“On the positive side, virtual schools do offer a viable alternative for some students, maybe those who simply can’t handle the anxiety and stress of being in a school building. But we have other students who are just trying to avoid going to school. They’ll go to a virtual school with no intention of studying, learning or doing the work.
“If students in virtual schools are successful, wonderful, but if they’re not, they come back to us uneducated and short on credits, and it is very difficult to get them back on track. Many times they become dropouts, and they’re not dropouts from the virtual school but dropouts from our district.”
In the online school Weber envisions, the district’s curriculum would be taught by district educators. Student progress would be closely tracked just as it is in the district’s conventional schools and additional help, which would include physical meetings with teachers, would be available.
“The whole premise is keeping in touch with the children who live in our school district,” Weber said. “We have a responsibility to educate all children living in our district. That’s what public school education is about.”
The online program would also allow students to design hybrid schedules that would give them the option of participating in conventional school programs, Weber said.
“For instance, in our district and community, music is a huge factor in the success of our students,” he said.
There’s much work to be done yet to determine if an online school is viable, and part of that analysis will focus on financial implications. Because students in the online program would be counted as district students for the purposes of state aid, unlike local students who enroll in virtual schools, it’s conceivable the program would not be a financial liability, Weber said.
In addition, because all middle and high school students are currently assigned a laptop computer, some of the infrastructure needed for an online program is already in place, he said.
“Education at its most basic level is about preparing young people to be responsible citizens of our community, and I don’t know if that’s happening with all students in virtual schools,” Weber said. “We have to figure out why our students are leaving for virtual schools and see if we can offer a better alternative for them, especially when we’re the ones who have to try and pick up the pieces when they don’t succeed.”