Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

In an effort to offer additional alternative educational opportunities to the community, gain students and generate revenue, the Eau Claire school board is considering a proposal for a new virtual charter school that could launch next academic year.

After the school board’s meeting Monday evening, at which the board for the first time heard information and specifics of the proposal, board President Joe Luginbill said he’s optimistic about the premise of providing an option for virtual education to students and families not only in the Eau Claire area, but also to others across the state.

“I think we have details to still work out to really determine if this is a feasible project. But so far, so good, and I’m really looking forward to continuing this conversation,” Luginbill said. “Unlike any other proposal we’ve seen, this opens us up to enroll any student across the state in the Eau Claire school district. That’s a huge opportunity for our district and one that we really have to look at seriously.”

Schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said at the Monday meeting the idea to add a virtual charter school to the district came while district officials were brainstorming ways to bring back students they lose through open enrollment, which in turn would cause the district to lose tax revenue.

In talking to families that left the district, they found the district had lost more than 100 students who were open enrolled in virtual schools throughout the state. In conversations with those families, Hardebeck said she’s found that many would prefer there was some type of virtual charter school in Eau Claire so their tax dollars could stay in the area.

“It seemed that there was maybe a little serendipity,” Hardebeck told the board Monday. “We sometimes hear from parents it’s not so much that they don’t want to attend our schools, they’re just looking for a different choice. And that choice may be for a virtual school may have to do with their religious beliefs, it may have to do with their students’ mental health, it may have to do with their students’ learning style, it may have to do with their preferences about having their students enrolled in a structured school day. There are lots and lots of different reasons that parents make that choice. And it’s not always about not liking school per se, it’s that they want something different.”

A committee, led by Andrew Seveland, academic services coordinator, and Dave Oldenberg, the district’s director of academic services, has been conducting research on existing virtual charter schools in Wisconsin and performing other preparation work since last summer.

Oldenberg said the two largest challenges these schools face are: graduation rates that trend lower than at traditional brick and mortar schools, and math achievement scores lower than students of the same age at traditional schools.

The goal, however, would be to address those barriers before adding such a school to the Eau Claire school district.

“We want to ensure access and achievement if the board chooses to go forward on this initiative,” Oldenberg said.

Seveland and Oldenberg proposed two models for the school — have district teachers lead instruction, or contract with a virtual education provider that is already equipped with Wisconsin-licensed teachers.

Those two options could either be combined or complemented by community learning experiences. According to district research, there is no considerable cost difference between the models.

The plan for a virtual charter school could make an impact on the school district’s budget if it moves forward. For the past several years, the district has faced budget difficulties and sought opportunities to gain revenue.

Projections included in the Monday night presentation show that the district could make $108,485 in the case that the school were composed of 60 percent new enrollees, 30 percent open enrollees and 10 percent current district students.

In the case of fewer new and open enrollees, however, the school could cost the district.

“I think the efficacy of a project like this really depends on the makeup of the students that we attract to it,” Luginbill said. “What would really bend to the success of the school is to be sure we’re attracting students through open enrollment, while also bringing students back.”

Although one of the reasons the district was interested in adding a virtual school is for the monetary potential, Oldenberg said, first and foremost, they wish to provide additional opportunities to families who they may not already serve, including homeschooled students and students who currently participate in other virtual school programs.

“We service the community and this puts another tool in our toolbox,” Oldenberg said.

Board member Chris Hambuch-Boyle said she supports the initiative to add a virtual charter school to the district. She also suggested the committee may wish to collaborate with INDE (Initiative for New Directions in Education).

The grass-roots organization aims to create and develop alternative education environments in the Chippewa Valley, and spearheaded proposals to transform the former Little Red School in Eau Claire into the Little Red Nature Campus. The idea was to transform the space into a public charter school that would provide project-based, outdoor learning educational opportunities. The group is also behind the future new nature charter school in the Mondovi school district.

“I think it would be prudent to get both charter entities around the table and see what they have to offer each other,” Hambuch-Boyle said, noting both groups’ aims to provide alternate learning environments for kids. “You can’t look at one in isolation. I think we need to look at all of them together once we get all the information.”

With hopes of making the virtual charter school a reality next academic year, Oldenberg said the committee is next working on gaining state approval and surveying the community to better see the interest. He expects the board will vote to approve the school in the spring.

Contact: 715-833-9206, samantha.west@ecpc.com, @SamanthaWest196 on Twitter