By Alicia Wolff
Seventeen-year-old Caela Pereiro arrives at school in time for the first bell at 8:14 a.m., attends three classes and then leaves to go home once the bell chimes again to announce the end of third period. It is 11:05 a.m.
The James Madison Memorial High School senior is not skipping. In fact, she still has one more class to go. Pereiro is one of the 17 students from Memorial who are currently taking an online course through Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) online program, Madison Virtual Campus.
Madison Virtual Campus has become the answer for students seeking a more personalized education, offering flexibility and support throughout the learning process.
Geared toward two extremes of students—those with credit deficiencies and those who have maxed out their credits and are looking for more challenging courses—online classes offer students the ability to choose how, what and when they learn.
For Pereiro, it was a credit deficiency that led her to become a Madison Virtual Campus student. Pereiro and her family moved from California earlier this year, and a difference in graduation requirements forced her to enroll in the online class.
“I still had a semester of health I needed to graduate, so it was either this or a classroom with freshman,” she said.
Virtual schooling is mostly used as a supplement to traditional learning, where the student will be enrolled in one or two online classes in addition to their regular in-classroom course.
An online program for Madison Metropolitan School District was originated back in 2004, and functioned under different names until 2006 when it became what is now known as Madison Virtual Campus.
The program has become increasingly more popular over the years, but according to Krouth, there is a limit to its growth.
“It’s limited by our funding,” she said.
Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District offers an online program called The 21st Century eSchool. The two programs function similarly, though Middleton offers a full-time option and is available to students throughout the entire state through an open-enrollment process.
In the MMSD, however, the virtual learning department works with a consortium of 12 other districts in the state, including the Kenosha and Racine districts, to provide a rich assortment of classes to students who qualify. Qualification is based on what district liaison for online learning, Tina Krouth, calls a “compelling need.”
“We have created a system for students to request an online course,” Krouth said. “We work with their counselors to determine if they qualify and once that determination is made, we provide training for the people who get the kids set up and enrolled in the courses.”
Once enrolled, students interact with the coursework through an online portal called a learning management system. This system houses all the lessons, assignments and assessments for the curriculum and allows the local instructor to modify and add content.
The curriculum content is purchased through companies such as Odysseyware, but the learning management system gives teachers and mentors the ability to modify and change the content as they see fit, offering their students a more personalized course.
Each high school in the MMSD has a specified counselor who serves as a mentor for the virtual students, guiding and supporting them with the online coursework. According to Krouth, this support system and the ability to personalize the courses is what sets the Madison Virtual Campus program apart from other online learning systems available, such as The 21st Century eSchool and the statewide Wisconsin Virtual School.
For Pereiro and the other online students at Memorial, Sacia Wheeler serves as an online mentor. Wheeler’s job is to keep tabs on her students and serve as a middleman between the student and the online instructor.
“I send weekly emails to their school accounts and sometimes I include parents, guidance counselors, case managers, letting them know if they are missing assignments or are on track,” Wheeler said. “Mostly, I am just reminding them to be careful not to fall behind.”
Krouth says it’s a common misconception that online courses are an easier alternative to the curriculum.
“The courses that we buy are quite rigorous and have some checks and balances built into them,” she said.
Madison Virtual Campus requires oral assessments throughout the semester in person or through web conferencing. Students must also pass the final in order to pass the class.
“The student has to go and take the final face-to-face somewhere,” online resource teacher Cheryl Saltzman said. “If the student has a 95 going into the final and doesn’t pass, it’s a pretty good indicator to us that something is up.”
The future looks promising for virtual schooling, as the programs become increasingly popular and accessible for all students.
According to a February 2012 report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, there were 250,000 students enrolled in full-time online programs over the 2010-2011 school year in the United States. A decade ago there were only 40,000 students enrolled in similar programs. As of this year, 40 states have state-led virtual schools; 30 of which offer statewide full-time programs.
As for Madison Virtual Campus, Krouth hopes to see the consortium grow to include more districts, thus making more courses available to more students.
“It’s really exciting to look forward and think about the possibility of offering high-interest elective courses—like criminal justice or music—and reach students who really have a passion,” she said.
Wheeler sees much of the same.
“I see virtual schools offering more opportunities and having it become a more popular option for students,” she said.
As Pereiro said while running out of the classroom door to make it home for lunch, “Online classes are the ‘wave of the future.’”
To see a breakdown of Madison’s virtual schools, click here.