The Eau Claire school district is known far and wide for how exceptional it is in meeting student needs as they change over time, said Eau Claire resident Missie Crisp.
But for some students and families, the traditional brick and mortar school isn’t the right fit — and they’re forced to opt out of enrolling in the district.
But this fall, a new virtual charter school will launch in the district after the school board on Monday voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.
“I think this school district is very well known for its high standards and being top notch in compared to other districts in the area,” Crisp told the board ahead of the vote.
“I’m fully confident that this board and district can take this on.”
Board President Joe Luginbill said he is excited to meet more diverse learning needs and to connect with more students and families.
“I will be enthusiastically supporting the approval of this contract tonight,” Luginbill said ahead of the board’s vote. “This would allow us the ability to connect with a variety of all students with diverse methods of learning. Of course, this would allow us the ability to connect with a variety of students and families who simply aren’t a part of the ECASD. For the many students who opt to open enroll into virtual programs, this would allow them an opportunity to stay locally connected.”
The school will pilot next academic year with a maximum of 28 students in grades six through 12. The following year, 2020-21, the school will expand to serve kindergarten through 12th grades.
“It’s a smaller footprint to begin with, but will allow the staff to work on developing the curriculum for the following year,” said Jim Schmitt, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “And with 28 students, that’s a small enough number that we can really support that group.”
While staff works on curriculum and launching a new charter on a local level, Schmitt said during a presentation to the board that the district will use a contracted instruction service provider.
Another exciting aspect of the program, Schmitt said, is that it has the potential to increase the district’s revenue by $275,380 if students are largely homeschooled or were not previously served by the district.
In response, board member Chris Hambuch-Boyle questioned how much the program could cost the district if most students are from the district. Schmitt said the cost would be minimal and the district would work to redirect those students to other virtual offerings in the district as well.
“With a footprint of 28 students, it wouldn’t be a huge loss,” he said.
The 28 students will be selected through a random lottery that is first open to district residents in late spring. Then nondistrict residents will be able to apply for the remaining seats after June 3 through alternate open enrollment. A random lottery would then be held for those applicants on Aug. 3, if needed.
Grade levels of students applying will not be taken into account, Schmitt said.
Luginbill said reaching new families and students is an exciting aspect of the new charter.
“(The school) would provide a mechanism for the district to virtually open its doors to children and families in all corners of the state, thus expanding our footprint and giving us financial leverage to see a balanced open enrollment system or even a potential financial net-gain open enrollment system,” Luginbill said.
Hambuch-Boyle agreed with Luginbill, emphasizing a long-held desire to serve homeschool students in the area.
“With the number of enrollments out, I’ve always wanted to connect with the homeschooling community,” she said. “I think that’s a strong part of this program.”
Schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said the program is a win-win for families and the district.
"It's an innovative program that gives parents and families choices, but the greater benefit for the school district is that we get to serve students and families that we normally don't get to work with and it's an opportunity to bring them back into the district and reconnect with them," she said. "To me, that's everything."