Wauwatosa Virtual Academy meets diverse need of learners

Ryan O'Keefe uses the Wauwatosa Virtual Academy interface to study World History from his dining room table in Oak Creek. The high school juniors work six to eight hours each day from their home on interactive classwork, plus homework.

Ryan O'Keefe uses the Wauwatosa Virtual Academy interface to study World History from his dining room table in Oak Creek. The high school juniors work six to eight hours each day from their home on interactive classwork, plus homework. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Feb. 25, 2015

Ryan and Jeff O'Keefe were not D and C grade students, despite what report cards at South Milwaukee High School said.

It took one year with Wauwatosa Virtual Academy to show the twin boys' true potential, earning mostly As and Bs in their sophomore and now junior years.

"Once we fell into this, and did really good, we decided to stay," said Jeff.

Both boys are Oak Creek residents. They dropped out of South Milwaukee High School because of bullying that resulted in legal action against the aggressors.

In seeking virtual schooling, the brothers found Wauwatosa Virtual Academy, which was attractive because, a s a public school option, it had no tuition fee, compared to other, private, online institutions.

"My kids never had As and Bs in the normal school setting," said Deb DeBoer, mother of Jeff and Ryan. "It's absolutely phenomenal. It's a life saver."

Claire Lambrecht, a senior at Wauwatosa Virtual Academy and a Wauwatosa resident, enrolled in the school for its flexible schedule and quieter environment.

Lambrecht still takes a few classes at Wauwatosa East, but is glad for Virtual Academy's one-on-one teaching style.

"It was a preference. With my online school, I get class done in a faster amount of time," she said.

Claire said she even wrote about how Virtual Academy helped her overcome certain learning obstacles in her application to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Claire, Ryan and Jeff are among 125 students enrolled at Wauwatosa Virtual Academy, which has 75 percent open-enrollment students. Twenty-five percent of the students are from Wauwatosa.

The online school targets students in southeastern Wisconsin, but has teens from as far away as Colfax, Wisconsin — 260 miles away, near Eau Claire.

Growing the program

Since opening for the 2013-14 school year, Virtual Academy's enrollment has grown 25 percent.

While Principal Dennis Mahony anticipated up to 150 students for the current school year, it is not uncommon for students to enroll later in the semester.

"We know people are looking for options and we want to be able to provide them," said Superintendent Phil Ertl.

Mahony and other Virtual Academy staffers operate out of an office and study space for students at 2323 N. Mayfair Road. The Mayfair office is also where online students meet to take standardized tests.

Benefits to brick-and-mortar

Mahony said that the Virtual Academy's growth directly benefits the Wauwatosa School District.

The Virtual Academy is paid $6,500 per open enrollment student from Wisconsin Open Enrollment, which off-sets the cost of purchasing online courses.

As its enrollment numbers increase, so does its ability to purchase digital courses for both brick-and-mortar and online students.

Often, if a Wauwatosa high school does not offer a specific upper level course, students will turn to the Virtual Academy to meet that need — free of charge.

In fact, Mahony said it's cheaper for the Wauwatosa School District to offer a course online than it is in the high school.

"I'm not a big believer that all students should take online courses. I think there's significant advantages to be in brick-and-mortar," said Ertl. "But for some students, it's the best way for them to get their education."

Individualized attention

While at South Milwaukee High School, Jeff O'Keefe said that learning in crowded classrooms caused him anxiety.

Now, Jeff and Ryan said they study in the quiet of their Oak Creek living room for six to eight hours a day, free of distraction.

"For a lot of students, that's a wonderful thing — individualized attention," said Mahony.

Jeff described the Virtual Academy as his own area, "all by myself with no one around me — just focusing on that. That helped," he said.

But "virtual" does not necessarily mean isolated.

Students can still join school district clubs or sports, and staff support is widely available.

Students can chat with other online students through discussion boards, and certified teachers are available to students from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every night, via chat or telephone. Tutors are available via chat or telephone until as late as 1 or 2 a.m.

Virtual Academy staff and counselors also call to check-in with parents and students once a week.

Ertl said Virtual Academy is in competition to recruit students for the online school, but the Wauwatosa School District does not market or recruit as heavily as some other districts.

The majority of new students are met by word-of-mouth. In fact, the O'Keefes say they have recommended it.

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