RACINE, Wis. — Willow Newell graduated from Racine Unified School District in the spring. Now, she’s getting ready to start college classes.
“I want to study English, film, and culture,” Newell said. "So, something along the lines of journalism. Hopefully I’ll be writing my own books and making my own movies.”
While she got to walk at graduation at her hometown high school, she physically didn’t take classes there.
Nearly all of her high school education — her sophomore, junior, and senior years — was done virtually.
“I started having health issues my sophomore year of high school, and I was not able to complete school,” Newell said. "I struggled with simple tasks like going to the store, getting up every morning, getting dressed, getting organized— so virtual learning allowed me to focus on my health and get better.”
She said she was able to work at her own pace. Sometimes she would be further along than her classmates, and other times she found herself taking extra time to hone in on a subject. That personalization and flexibility is something she felt wouldn’t have been able to happen if she was in a physical classroom.
“I thought being in virtual [school] I wouldn’t be able to connect with my teachers as well because I couldn’t see them in person, but I felt more connected through virtual,” Newell said.
“We met at coffee houses, we met at restaurants and met with students. The kids here have us kind of at their fingertips,” said Katie Hendrix, an elementary teacher with Racine Unified School District. "We’re in touch with their parents constantly and they’re able to reach out and say, 'You know we need some help here or there.’"
Hendrix, like other teachers, taught her class remotely in 2020-2021.
After that school year, she made the jump to become a virtual learning teacher full time.
“I had loved teaching in this way and seeing, kind of what you talked about, some of those kids that were really struggling in the regular, traditional classroom, seeing how successful they were,” Hendrix said.
Hendrix said it’s because those students get more individualized attention than they might in a classroom.
That — and the increased focus on health because of COVID-19 — has lead to more families choosing the virtual option.
Racine Unified said there are nearly 200 students signed up for virtual learning this year.
About 150 of those families signed up when Racine made the announcement to not do the hybrid model. The hybrid model, which consists of a mix of in-person and virtual learning, was available during the last school year.
“Because we’re putting so much emphasis on students really being proactive about their education, it really starts to create a much more responsible educational mindset for kids going forward,” said James O’Hagan, director of Racine Unified School District’s virtual learning program.
With their still being uncertainty with the coronavirus pandemic, O’Hagan said giving families choices for their child’s education, whether choosing traditional learning or virtual, is extremely important.
O’Hagan said Racine Unified is asking students who sign up for virtual learning to stick with it for at least one semester.