One of the better-kept secrets in Madison is that the school district currently offers more than 100 online courses for city high school students. The program is called the Madison Virtual Campus.
"It turns out Madison is a leader in this technology," says Johnny Winston Jr., the school board president. "My first question was, ‘Why don't people know about this?'" He thinks virtual schools could help keep students who might leave for other options.
"As the second-largest school district in the state, we should be leading the way," Winston says. "And to find out that yeah, we're already doing this but nobody knows about it, I'm like, c'mon, let's make this happen."
Madison is one of many districts in Wisconsin that are turning to the Internet to expand options for students. Some districts are tiptoeing toward this new technology, offering a few online courses. Others are creating entire schools in cyberspace, torpedoing the idea of an education that consists of 45-minute classes held within four walls.
Again, Appleton is among the state's leaders, chartering a school called the Wisconsin Connections Academy, which currently serves 438 elementary school students online, many of whom have been home-schooled.
The Northern Ozaukee school district has chartered the Wisconsin Virtual Academy, a K-8 elementary school for students across the state. It uses the Core Knowledge curriculum and is partnered with K12 Inc., a private company. Enrollment this year is expected to top 800.
Waukesha chartered the state's first virtual high school, iQ Academies at Wisconsin, which is expected to serve about 700 students this year. The Kiel school district now offers a virtual school for disenfranchised high school students. And the Monroe school district charters a virtual middle school and high school, to give students a "traditional high school education in a nontraditional environment."
The state's open enrollment law lets parents send their kids to different districts, and most virtual schools are free to students. School districts have an incentive to attract students to their virtual schools because they add to enrollment figures that determine state aid.
Not everyone thinks virtual schools are a good idea. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) sued the Appleton and Ozaukee districts, arguing that students were not adequately taught by certified teachers. Teachers served more like coaches and were available for questions, but students - and often their parents - were largely responsible for instruction.
WEAC lost both lawsuits, and virtual schools continue to grow.
Virtual classrooms allow wholesale shifts in the way kids are taught. Instead of the traditional sit-and-learn setting, technology allows students to investigate and synthesize materials beyond the reach of most classrooms. These schools may also redefine the role of teacher, from an expert imparting knowledge to a facilitator of learning.
In Madison, district officials have spent five years developing the Madison Virtual Campus, which at the moment offers 100 high school courses purchased from dozens of institutions.
But officials have purposely kept the program under wraps as they've fine-tuned it. There's no mention of the program on the district's Web site, and most parents have never heard of it. The district has spent five years building infrastructure, training staff and convincing stakeholders of the growing demand for virtual learning.
"We're close to crossing a threshold in this district," says Kelly Pochop, the district's online learning facilitator. "Keep your ears open. We're actively exploring options with our administrative team."
The big question is how fast the district wants its students to take advantage of the Madison Virtual Campus. Currently, only eight high school students are taking online courses for credit. Another 14 middle school students are taking an online geometry course through the Kiel school district, with a Madison teacher providing support, to meet demands by the local teachers union.
One goal of the Madison Virtual Campus is to allow teachers in particular areas - such as foreign languages, advanced math and computer skills - to reach more students.
"For some courses, we don't have the ability to offer them at all of our schools, whether it's because of resources or demand," says Joan Pebbles, the district's coordinator of technology and learning. But teaching some sections of a course online would expand the student base throughout the district. This year, officials are expanding their efforts to recuit Madison teachers to teach online sections.
"Our classrooms meet the needs of the vast majority of students," says Peebles. "But we're trying to reach those kids who might have special needs."