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Budimlija thanks school board for continued support of RVA

Vox Pop

Who would have guessed that we couldn’t have been better prepared for a pandemic? Although not built for this purpose, the Rural Virtual Academy (RVA) provided virtual education to nearly 1,300 students across Wisconsin this past spring with very little disruptive educational impact due to COVID-19. As a virtual charter school, the RVA was allowed to remain open to remotely serve its students.

Although left relatively unscathed, the RVA witnessed widespread educational disarray hit our communities. Parents were given the expectation to largely shoulder the education of their own children with little mentorship or time to prepare. RVA staff advised and consulted as varied responses were instituted from traditional schools and districts to the lockdown. In general, only schools and districts like the RVA, who had already established a solid virtual educational practice, with students who had access to connectivity and devices, and with staff already trained in the use of online teaching were able to maintain any form of educational normalcy. Impressive were the actions taken by many of our local school leaders and teachers to build this type of robust virtual experience for families in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, the number of prepared schools and districts across Wisconsin was extremely low. The vast majority simply did the best they could under emergency conditions and are now outlining more robust remote learning plans to implement into next school year, should it become necessary.

At times we are asked by school leaders and parents, “Why can’t we just enroll all of our students into the RVA?” The simplest answer is because we don’t have the capacity to grow that rapidly. RVA has experienced an average annual growth rate in excess of 35 percent over the past 15 years. By any measure, that is exceptional growth bringing with it its own challenges. As the RVA has continued to grow, it has done so in an intentional manner to protect the quality of academic options and instructional staff. Like any other organization, expanding too fast without necessary supports and focused attention to providing exceptional service can quickly undermine and erode growth. As a school of choice, the RVA is well aware that parents who choose to send their children to the RVA can just as easily choose to send their children to school elsewhere. In helping protect the quality of the school and its offerings, the Medford Area Public School District Board of Education annually sets a school and class size limit on the RVA based on recommendations. This limit allows for the incremental expansion of the school, protecting quality instruction for enrolled students as well as to all taxpayers from financial risks of over-spending on personnel costs in years where enrollments could rapidly fluctuate. For the upcoming 2020-21 school year, the RVA has an enrollment cap of 1,500 students in place. Potential enrollments have already exceeded 2,000 largely due to parents being unsure of what school will look like this fall. At this time, we intend on keeping the cap in place, while maintaining an active waitlist throughout the summer and fall to allow children into the school should spaces become available.

Beyond capacity, however, the RVA also wants to support local schools and teachers to serve their own children. Having students transfer to schools like the RVA, and then returning to a traditional school setting, can make for difficult transitions. Every time a child transitions schools we know learning is suspended as children need time to reacclimate to their new surroundings and expectations. What many people may not know is that the RVA is not just a full-time virtual school. The other half of what RVA does is called “District Connect.” The RVA District Connect is made up of a team whose jobs are to train teachers in how to use digital learning curriculum and tools in traditional school environments, as well as online. The RVA provides the online courses, professional development of teachers and support staff, and takes care of the administrative tasks associated with setting up and maintaining these online offerings. District Connect provides a streamlined, turn-key, cost effective digital learning solutions for all schools to use within the RVA’s 39 district consortium. Last school year, the RVA District Connect team trained over 100 teachers and provided just less than 4,000 digital courses to Wisconsin students. The majority of these students were educated in their own home districts being taught by their own local teachers. As we look forward to the start of the 2020-21 school year, the RVA has increased support in its District Connect side of operations. This is due to the anticipation of potential surges in partner districts wanting or needing online learning support, training, and access to curriculum and technology.

The RVA stands ready amid a pandemic and everevolving landscape that is seemingly bound and determined to change the way we as a society can approach the education of our children. Thank you to the Medford Area Public School Board of Education for the continued authorization and support to operate the RVA. Thank you to the RVA Governance Board and to all of our partner districts’ school boards for their uncompromising support and willingness to take calculated educational risks for the betterment of our children. Thank you to the RVA faculty for their year-round efforts to educate and sustain student learning. Last, thank you to the parents of all of our RVA students. It is these parents who are the true innovators who undoubtedly will help us again evolve into something new and even better this coming school year and beyond.

Sara Budimlija, executive assistant Medford Area Public School District