River Falls resident Cody Splittgerber was one of millions of 18-year-olds to graduate high school this spring.
What's unique is the school he graduated from: Wisconsin Connections Academy, the first online public school in the state.
Splittgerber, an asphalt worker for Back to Black Driveway Sealcoating in River Falls, attended public school on and off through elementary and middle school.
However, he had problems focusing with dozens of other students in the classroom, and had a trouble getting his work completed.
“I just really like to talk,” he said. “There were lots of distractions with all the other kids and my friends, and I just always wanted to talk to people. Trying to stay focused was hard.”
His mother, Ailene Splittgerber, who works as a police services specialist for the city, said that she knew Cody needed different accommodations to reach his full academic potential. She was able to homeschool him for awhile, and she had done with Cody’s older siblings.
But when she started working full time for the police department during Cody's eighth grade year, Ailene knew the work load would be too much for his upcoming four years of high school.
“I knew I wouldn't have the time to develop a high school curriculum,” she said. “It wouldn't do his education justice.”
They started looking into alternative schooling options.
“We decided to start looking into online school, and did a lot of research together” Ailene said. “Wisconsin Connections Academy actually did an information session at the library here, and when we got there we were the only ones who had signed up.
“And they still came all the way from Appleton to speak with us.”
What sold the Splittgerbers on Wisconsin Connections Academy was the flexibility it would allow Cody to have so he could continue to work as much as he wanted.
“They were very flexible. That's what I liked,” Cody said. “You had to have one live class, where you’re logged in and interacted with the teacher online, almost like Skype. And they recorded other live sessions, so I could watch it when I could.”
The coursework of online students is similar to what students in brick-and-mortar schools would do in a classroom -- except it’s done online.
Cody said a typical lesson would consist of reading some text in a virtual textbook, doing an activity on the topic, and passing short quiz at the end of the session.
“It took me a lot less time, because some of the subjects were super easy for me so I could go at my own fast pace,” he said.
It allowed him to take more time on subjects that were harder, too, instead of falling behind like a student struggling might in a traditional classroom setting.
For Ailene, communication is what set Wisconsin Connections Academy apart from other schools they looked at.
“Communication was really great with Wisconsin Connections Academy,” she said. “They'd send out newsletters about how to be better learning coaches, and they made the registration process super easy.
“They sent us all the forms and reminders, and they even provided a laptop for him to use, too.”
Wisconsin Connections Academy was established in 2002 -- the first of it's kind in the state. It is registered as a charter school, a branch of the international Connections Academy.
The Academy has served more than 700 Wisconsin students over 14 years of operation. The charter school is accredited and registered in the Appleton School District where the main office is located.
Michelle Mueller, principal of the Academy school, said that while online schooling is a great option for some students, it's definitely not for all. It takes a very self-directed and motivated student, she said, since there isn't a teacher to keep them on track every day.
“Organization is huge for these students, so they don't fall behind,” Mueller said.
She also talked about the efforts online schools make to give students some socialization -- an important part of the typical high school experience.
“Students get that socialization when they interact in their online classrooms, and we take field trips all around the state that any student can come on and meet each other,” Mueller said. “We get together for standardized testing, and we have extracurricular clubs and stuff that students can choose to be apart of, too.”
With their busy schedules, the Splittgerbers were a good match for Wisconsin Connections Academy. However, they said that what's most important for families to do when considering alternative schooling is to do good research. But go for it, they said, if the opportunity seems to meet a child’s needs.
“You have to know what you're looking for,” Ailene said. “They're all very different.
“But give it a try. You really have nothing to lose by thinking outside the box and trying something different”
Cody Splittgerber plans on attending Chippewa Valley Technical College in the fall to study residential construction, and to continue his work with for Back to Black.