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Virtual school students play real waiting game
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MONROE - For would-be virtual school students and parents, it's a waiting game to see if they will get into their school of choice. And for virtual school administrators, it's a waiting game to see how many new students will come their way this fall.

The Monroe school district accepted 383 new students to the virtual school under open enrollment for the coming year. But how many of those students will actually attend Monroe's online charter school this fall remains to be seen.

"We could get zero kids, we could hundreds," said Cory Hirsbrunner, principal of Monroe's online virtual school. "It's hard to say."

The uncertainty in enrollment numbers is partly the result of a cap on virtual school enrollment. The state placed a cap on virtual school enrollment as a compromise when the legality of the state's online virtual schools was challenged in the fall of 2007.

Under Wisconsin Act 222, a total of 5,250 students may attend one of the 12 virtual schools in the state at any time. The enrollment cap was intended as a temporary measure while a state audit determines the value of online education.

Not every virtual school student is subject to the enrollment cap. The cap applies to new students who do not have a sibling attending a virtual school and are applying through open enrollment, meaning they are not residents of the virtual school's district.

Students who are already attending a virtual charter school under open enrollment may continue to attend their virtual school, and siblings of existing students may also attend, even if the enrollment limit will be exceeded.

Likewise, students who reside in the Monroe school district may attend the district's virtual school, regardless of the enrollment cap. There are other criteria a student must meet in order to demonstrate they are a good candidate for online education, Hirsbrunner said, but enrollment numbers are not a factor.

This year, there are 2,074 virtual charter school students in the state, and 240 of their siblings are interested in attending.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, subtracted that total, 2,314, from the 5,250 total allowed to come up with 2,936 open enrollment spots available, Hirsbrunner said.

The interest far outweighs that number, however. There were 4,354 students who applied for open enrollment in Wisconsin virtual schools, according to the DPI. Because there are only 2,936 spots available, the DPI set up a lottery system that randomly assigned a number to each student to determine the order in which they will be selected for placement. Those numbers were assigned May 4.

To complicate matters further, the DPI allows each student to apply for and be accepted in up to three virtual schools.

The ability to get new students through open enrollment is vital to virtual schools.

Monroe's virtual school currently has 326 full-time students, Hirbrunner said.

Of those, 238 are open enrolled, with the remainder coming from within the Monroe school district. Most are middle and high school age.

"We have very few nontraditional students," she said.

The 383 new students were accepted either because they are the sibling of a student currently enrolled in any virtual school, or because they claimed a spot through the lottery. But many of those students may have applied and been accepted at another virtual school, and may decide to go there instead of Monroe, Hirsbrunner said.

Hence, the waiting game.

The final enrollment numbers make a big impact on staff needed; each virtual school is run differently.

Some have scheduled class times, so adding students at the last minute does not make as much of an impact. Monroe's virtual school teachers, however, travel throughout the state, meeting with their assigned students and their parents.

For Monroe, "the difference between 50 and 100 is a huge deal," Hirsbrunner said.

Monroe had 591 open enrollment applications this year. That's good news for the district: The virtual school has grown every year, and the district actively pursues new applicants by advertising throughout the state.

"We're happy so many expressed an interest," she said.

For now, there are no easy answers. Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, worked last year to allow virtual schools such as Monroe's to continue to operate and is pushing the legislature to lift the enrollment cap. But earlier this month, Gov. Jim Doyle's office said no change in the law would be coming this year.

Families of each of the students accepted to Monroe's virtual school were sent a letter Monday, May 11, asking them to let the school district know if they will be enrolling, Hirsbrunner said. The deadline, set by the DPI, is June 5.

Between now and Sept. 1, school officials will be checking the DPI's database regularly to see how the lottery selection is coming.

"It's a daily thing," Hirsbrunner said.