Virtual Record for Monroe School

If one was cause for an occasion, then more than two dozen calls for a rousing celebration.
“It’s hard to believe,” Dan Bauer said. “If you had asked me seven years ago that we’d graduate 27 students in one swoop, I would have said you were crazy.”
For the Monroe virtual school principal, today’s graduation ceremony in Wisconsin Dells is certainly reason to celebrate: the class of 2007 is the largest graduating virtual school class in state history.
“It says a lot about the school,” Bauer said.
The school was established in 2001, after Bauer attended a charter school conference the year before and heard about a small school district in Kansas starting a virtual school as a way to grow their financially unstable, shrinking district.
“If they can do it, we can do it,” he said of the idea.
In its first year, seven students — “the Brave Seven,” as Bauer calls them — enrolled in the new virtual school. The Monroe virtual school graduated its first student in 2003.
This year, 322 students were enrolled, and the school graduates 27 this afternoon.
“Because of the way our product is offered, the growth potential is unlimited,” Bauer said, referring to the virtual school as a business, whose product is education.
The school anticipates between 450 and 500 students next year.
But the sheer number of students isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the last several years. Students are now coming from all over the state for all different reasons; the school’s first seven families were all local.
The staff has grown, from one person at the start to six teachers and two secretaries this year. The course offerings, too, have expanded, from about 40 classes at the start to about 700 this year. Independent study courses were added about two years ago to meet the varying ways in which some students learn.
So what sets the Monroe virtual school apart from other virtual schools?
Bauer has two words: customer service.
Even with students all over the state — this year’s graduating class hails from Madison, Green Bay, Eau Claire, Wisconsin Rapids, Kenosha and elsewhere — teachers meet their students face-to-face at least once; home visits spark a healthy student-teacher relationship that can sometimes be lost in a virtual world.
Plus, the virtual school is open year-round, giving students the flexibility to complete their high school education at their own pace, when and how they want.
Superior “personal service” was something Bauer sought from the get-go.
“We don’t want anyone to beat us at customer service,” he said.
For a traditional school, like Monroe High School, the students are guaranteed. But for a non-traditional school, like the Monroe virtual school, attracting and retaining students isn’t a sure thing.
“We have to be good or they don’t come to us,” Bauer said.
But despite all the success over the last several years, the Monroe virtual school isn’t without its challenges.
Class sizes, or individual teachers’ caseloads, are still on the high side. Ideally, Bauer said, a virtual school should have 55 students to every one teacher. The Monroe virtual school’s numbers are more like 75-to-1.
Staying on the up and up, technologically speaking, continues to be a challenge, as well, especially when up against “computer giveaway” schools — schools that provide their students with laptops and Internet connections. To remedy that, Bauer said the Monroe virtual school tries to stay abreast with innovative means of online communication, like instant messaging.
And keeping learning fun and fresh — and providing more of the things students would normally get at a traditional school, like driver’s ed or guitar lessons, both coming next school year — not only attract students and their families, but have become real selling points for the school.
“The more innovative we can be, then we can draw more people,” Bauer said.
For Bauer, although today’s graduation is cause for applause, it’s also time to think about next year: adding and developing more classes, offering tutors, employing new or updated technology, etc.