The holidays are behind us and school is back in session. Calls and emails to Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS) have increased as districts are asking questions about enrolling, technology readiness, and their students’ courses. I have been called to visit district to provide an overview of WVS and our work as a partner in the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC). As I walk into the school district office my mind starts reviewing the proposed agenda for the meeting. I expect the conversation to start with introductions all around. I hadn’t been informed of who would be attending the meeting, so I’m running through scenarios of the leaders that I hope will be there to engage in a conversation about digital learning opportunities. I had spent some time on the district’s website to see if I could capture potential names and titles. I’m thinking (hoping) the superintendent, high school and middle school principals, special education director, curriculum director, pupil services, school counselor, and technology or IT support will be present. At times a board member, parent, or even a student representative might be asked to participate in the meeting. If my “hope” is met, we’ll be in position for a great conversation.
I’m not disappointed on this day when the district team assembles in a conference room. The district leaders I had hoped for have arrived. No board members, parents, or students, but that’s OK, we are off to a great start. From introductions the conversation comes back to me to review the purpose of the onsite school visit request. I provided an overview of what the state-led virtual school program can provide for a district in supplemental online and blended learning services. After 12 years of providing these types of meetings, I start with providing the top reasons students take an online course and why a district might want to offer an online course for a student.
I suggest also that they may want to recover a student who has left their district for other opportunities in neighboring districts or to any of Wisconsin’s 30+ virtual charter schools. From here the conversation becomes much more localized and specific to their needs and their students. The school leaders begin to share what they have been doing, what they are thinking about doing, and how they might get there. As a state-led virtual school, supplemental in nature, we’re there to listen, ask for clarification, provide additional questions to ask, provide examples of implementation at other districts, and potentially recommend resources and pathways. The recommendations may be other state programs and services, or starting a virtual charter school, or working with various providers to build a program on their own to meet their needs. There most likely is not be one-size fits all solution, I tell them.
No matter where they end up, I have experienced several commonalities in these meetings over the past years.
1) The vast majority of schools have similar if not identical needs: types of students they want to serve with specific needs. (Credit deficient, accelerated graduation, homeschooled, full time virtual, part time virtual, capture students that have left their district for services elsewhere, etc.).
2) Most school districts seem to know they can’t do this alone and there are lessons to learn. After all, the digital space is changing faster than we can keep up.
3) Districts can learn much from other districts that are already implementing, evaluating, and evolving their programs. They can learn from virtual charter schools and the partners in the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative.
4) Cost of online content, learning management systems, student information systems, teacher compensation models, IT support, professional learning for their teachers, and student services are on the forefront of their minds. How will they find the dollars, yet how can they not?
As the conversation continues, the school leaders listen to each other and build on those initial questions that started our agenda for the day. I begin to see the sparks and flickers that become “ah ha moments” and strategies or next steps begin to form in their conversation that will become the opportunities they will offer their local students.
As a leader of digital learning in our state, rarely have I left one of these onsite meetings as I have described above without “hope renewed” and a feeling of “this is why I LOVE what I am doing!” If the opportunity follows for further planning and implementing their digital program, we’re ready and energized to provide assistance in any way possible as their collaborative partner.
Maybe a semester or year (and sometimes longer) might go by and momentum is lost, key leadership changes occur, and funding is lost or gained, and now we may be invited back there to provide “triage” to help the district see where they were and despite the challenges or shifts in direction. Perhaps the conversation begins again in my head in the parking lot of the same school district. I know they can count on their state-led virtual school to be there! And I will again leave the meeting feeling energized and know in my heart that in the end it’s all good for “our” students in Wisconsin.