Rebel With a Cause

Virtual schools, viewed skeptically by the educational establishment, have a champion in this veteran teacher.

By Sunny Schubert

Kathy Hennings starts her day like any other Wisconsin public school teacher: She’s up, coiffed, appropriately dressed and ready to go.

And then she starts her commute: down the hall in her Cedarburg home from the kitchen to her office. She sits down in front of a bank of two linked computers, and starts going through the 20-plus emails she receives each day from the parents of her students.

Then she and her students settle down for another day of learning—21st-century style—in the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, one of 14 Internet-based online charter schools in Wisconsin.

Hennings has 75 students: 30 first-graders and 45 second-graders. They live in rural areas, villages, towns and big cities all across Wisconsin, from Superior to Stevens Point, from Hudson to Milwaukee.

Their reasons for being in Hennings’ classes are just as varied as their hometowns.
“Some have parents who are really serious about wanting to spend more time with their kids, instead of shipping them off to school for seven or eight hours a day,” she explains. “Some children might be advanced learners who want to move faster or in different directions than a regular school curriculum might let them.

Other students might struggle with their studies and benefit from working at their own pace. She also draws kids with special needs or attention-deficit issues. “Others didn’t feel safe in their old school,” she notes. “I have at least two who had bullying issues.”
The bottom line is this: A virtual classroom can better accommodate a wide variety of learning styles than a regular classroom can.

“It’s all about choice,” Hennings says.

That sort of talk that has driven some “brick and mortar” schoolteachers up the wall in the 15 years or so since virtual schools first got a toehold in the educational scene.
In the beginning, the education establishment—notably, the major state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and its political allies in the state Department of Public Instruction—fought virtual schools and online education almost as hard as they fought Milwaukee’s school choice program.

The rancor made Hennings “very sad,” she says. After all, “I was a teachers union member for many years.”

Hennings graduated from UW-Stevens Point with a degree in elementary education in 1971 and started teaching right away. There were a couple of maternity leaves along the way—her daughters are 31 and 24 now—but she put in 17 years in the Cedarburg schools. She says her big realization was that not even an affluent district like Cedarburg’s could satisfy every child’s learning needs.

Seven years ago, the Northern Ozaukee School District offered her a job teaching in its virtual school, and Hennings jumped at the chance. “I got hooked on technology back in 1996,” she says. “I immediately became very excited at the thought of what computers could do to enhance learning. Becoming a ‘virtual teacher’ was an easy transition.”

For her, perhaps, but not her colleagues. Her union filed two lawsuits attempting to shut down the Northern Ozaukee virtual school, mostly on the pretext that parents tutoring their children were doing too much of the teaching, and that those parents were not licensed teachers.

“WEAC was suing the school, which was us teachers, and yet they did not ever contact us to find out what virtual education was all about,” she says, shaking her head. “It was so sad.”

Advocates for virtual education, including Hennings, lobbied the Legislature. Lawmakers from both parties “were far more willing to listen to us than our fellow teachers were,” she says. Eventually, a bipartisan-backed bill was signed into law authorizing virtual schools.

Last year, Hennings retired from her Cedarburg job and left the teachers union. She promptly signed on as a teacher for a new online school, the Wisconsin Virtual Academy. The academy is a public charter school operated by an independent board under the auspices of the McFarland School District. It uses an interactive curriculum designed by a Virginia company, K12 Inc., which serves virtual schools throughout the nation.

Hennings explains that the academy’s curriculum was designed to calm the fears about parents acting as unlicensed teachers, while offering families the choice and flexibility that are hallmarks of online learning.

As she explains it, that flexibility can be exercised in a number of ways. A student might choose to work ahead in one subject, like history, and then catch up in another subject, like math or science, later on.

Because attention spans and nervous energy vary widely among children, Hennings says, one student might prefer to work in longer blocks of time than another who needs to get up and move around. Accommodating disparate learning needs could be disruptive in a traditional class, but isn’t a problem in a virtual class.

“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Hennings says.

What is not flexible is the curriculum. Each student following the K12 lesson plans needs a personal computer, which can be provided if necessary. “And then they get boxes and boxes of books shipped to them, and lab equipment, and art supplies,” Hennings says.

“Each lesson is very scripted, very spelled out,” she adds. “The lessons are designed to teach them key concepts, and that’s what I look for mastery of. They have to show me their work.”

The rigid curriculum is designed to ease fears that virtual education is just home-schooling by another name. In contrast to publicly chartered virtual schools, home-schoolers in Wisconsin are not required to follow the state’s curriculum standards, nor take the state’s standardized tests.

Hennings spent the first month of the new school year calling each family and talking to parents and students. Then she began assessing each student’s skills and needs. She identified several students who are particularly good readers and advanced them to second semester in the reading curriculum.

The K12 reading program for younger students “is really heavy on phonics,” she says. “That’s one reason why I like it so much.”

She has also broken her two grades into work groups of seven or eight students each, and conducted online “classes” with them. The first-graders, for example, have been discussing the book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which their parents read to them, while second-graders discussed Clara and the Book Wagon.

The “classes” are almost the only time all the students are expected to be logged on together, Hennings adds. Classes can be taught via webcams and microphones, so the students can see and hear each other and their teacher.

Hennings says her job is a lot like a regular teacher’s: She is expected to be in her office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, “and I work on the weekends, and I work in the evenings, but that’s very comparable to teachers in a regular classroom. They work long hours and evenings, too.”

Two days every month, Hennings travels to McFarland to meet with her fellow virtual teachers. “It’s very helpful-–the exchange of ideas is just incredible.” She says she is paid “very comparably” to regular classroom teachers.

Hennings acknowledges that virtual-school families are different: “One thing all these parents have in common is that they have made the choice to do these lessons at home with their children.” That choice shows a level of commitment not always present in the parents of regular-school students.

Ironically, Hennings says, as a mother she would not have been interested in sending her own children to a virtual school.

“I hear that from parents all the time: ‘Oh, don’t you wish there had been schools like this when your own kids were little, so you could have stayed home with them?’ Well...not really,” she says with a laugh. “They did fine in regular school.”

“But, you know, it was my choice to send them to public school,” she adds. “My husband and I were fortunate that if we had wanted to, we could have been able to afford private school, too.

“That’s what this virtual school means to me-–it’s offering parents and students another way to learn...another choice,” Hennings says. “And I will stand for this to my dying day: It’s all about choice.”

 

To learn more about the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, including typical daily schedules or to try a sample lesson, go to www.k12.com/wiva/home.

The academy has 461 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade, and 8.5 teachers, all of whom are state licensed. Like any other public school, the academy is tuition-free. Each student’s “home district” pays the McFarland school district, which sponsors the virtual school, $6,000-plus a year per student.                

There are 13 other virtual schools in Wisconsin; some are high schools, others are K-8 schools. They embrace different educational approaches, but all are required to teach to the state’s curriculum standards, and their students take the state’s standardized tests.

For information about each school, follow the links on the state Department of Public Instruction’s virtual schools page.                

The parent organization for online school families is the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families. You can learn more about the group here.

Official enrollment figures aren’t out yet, but almost 3,000 students are expected to attend virtual schools in Wisconsin this year, significantly fewer than the 5,250 slots authorized by the Legislature. ­­–S.S.

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