Following big enrollment jump, virtual charter school expects about half of newcomers to stick around

Laptop Virtual Learning
WISC-TV / Channel3000.com

MADISON, Wis. – The pandemic shook up the way children learn, and some of those changes may stick around.

In the spring, News 3 Now took a close look at how students moved schools during the pandemic. At that point, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction numbers showed enrollment in Wisconsin’s about 50 virtual schools nearly doubled from the 2019 to 2020.

The Wisconsin Virtual Academy, an established virtual charter school based in McFarland, saw a similar-sized jump at its K-8 school, going from 1,059 to 2,040 students at the start of the year.

Sara Cutler is head of schools for Wisconsin Virtual Academy’s K-8 and high schools, Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin and Insight School of Wisconsin, all powered by Stride K12, an education company that provides online and career learning education options.

She said for the four schools combined, enrollment jumped to more than 4,000 students.

“We had 4,000 different reasons kids come to our schools,” Cutler said.

During the pandemic and the rise of virtual learning, Wisconsin Virtual Academy didn’t have to change too much.

“We have a team focused on engagement protocols that help students onboard. Our technology has already been tested and retested,” Cutler said. “So all those things that are such barriers in traditional school systems, they’re just regular daily procedures for us.”

As a rough estimate, she guessed about half of newcomers will stick around.

The other half will be like, ‘We can’t wait to get back to class,’” Cutler said. “We hit 4,100 last year, and the year before we were about half of that, so I’m aiming for about halfway between. In the 3,000s is where I think we’re going to land, K-12.”

A lot of that will depend on what families of elementary school-aged children will feel comfortable with, she said.

“A strong virtual program at the elementary level, we do offer that, that’s going to be more difficult for traditional schools to do,” Cutler said.

Between Zoom fatigue and lack of traditional social interaction, virtual learning isn’t for everyone. Some students in area districts experienced academic decline last year.

But Cutler said WIVA does its best for students who do thrive in a virtual environment, offering new options for social engagement and personalized pathways for students.

“We have a niche,” Cutler said.  “I do not think that every kiddo should be in a virtual educational experience, but I do think that there are places and opportunities for kiddos who are not succeeding in the traditional systems they are enrolled in.”