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Don’t stand in way of RVA’s growth

By virtually any measure, the Rural Virtual Academy (RVA) has been a success.

The RVA is a Medford-based charter school that provides learning opportunities for students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. It has a current enrollment of more than 800 students.

While much of the learning occurs online, hence the virtual in the name, in recent years the RVA has expanded to educational centers where in-person instruction occurs as well as providing a variety of blended learning opportunities for participating school districts.

The Rural Virtual Academy Charter School has two sides to its operations: full-time virtual (routinely referred to simply as the “RVA”) and supplemental virtual (referred to as “District Connect”) Currently, the RVA’s full-time virtual school has an enrollment of 1,507 students in grades PreK-12. These students come from 196 of Wisconsin’s 421 school districts. Of the 1,507 full-time students, 711 come from within the 40 district consortium and 796 come to through open enrollment.

This demonstrates RVA’s commitment to the consortium of districts to place their children and needs as a priority. Likewise, the “District Connect” arm of operations serves only consortium of schools by providing them access to RVA’s digital curriculum, learning management systems, and professional development to support local teachers and students giving access to high-quality digital learning tools at costs which are some of the lowest in the nation. District Connect puts curriculum and technology in the hands of our consortium partners to use to instruct their own students in the manner local schools best see fit. Currently in there 40 district consortium, there are 2,151 students taking over 8,172 online courses through RVA’s District Connect offerings. Administrator Charlie Heckel notes these are first semester numbers and they suspect the number of courses to likely double by the end of the school year.

One of the reasons the RVA was started more than a decade ago was because of the recognition that for a significant portion of the state’s population the traditional educational model just wasn’t working. With so many families around the region and across the state choosing to homeschool their children, there was a real concern about the quality of education these students were receiving. The Medford School Board stepped up to the plate and, with partners in other area districts, formed the consortium that oversees the RVA.

As Medford district administrator Pat Sullivan often explains to school board and community members, the RVA is a part of Medford Area Public School District (MAPSD), except when it is not. The staff of the RVA are employees of MAPSD and Medford has policy oversight as well as running the finances.

Financially, the RVA has been benefi cial for Medford and the other member districts allowing them to capture per pupil state aids that would have disappeared had students chosen homeschooling options.

While in-person schools across the state and much of the country were shut down last spring due to COVID-19, the RVA continued to provide high quality instruction. As schools reopened this fall, families clamored to enroll in the RVA to the extent that there was a waiting list of students wanting to enroll.

Unlike brick and mortar districts which are limited by their building size, the limit on the RVA is one of having access to high quality teachers. Perhaps the biggest complaint of local school offi cials over the past several years is that the RVA has “stolen” a number of high quality classroom teachers from the brick and mortar schools. The reality is that in many cases these teachers were looking for a change and by having the option to transfer to the RVA, quality educators continued teaching rather than leaving the profession.

With the RVA’s tremendous growth in recent years, the question remains how big should it be allowed to grow. There are some on the school board who would seek to rein it in and keep it steady.

A better option is to keep faith in RVA administrator Charlie Heckel and his team to grow at the pace they can find quality educators and where they feel they can provide quality education to the children enrolled in RVA classes.