By Benjamin Pierce, The Gazette

JANESVILLE — Paige Diehl let out an excited giggle Tuesday at her makeshift desk in the kitchen as she used markers to color and count scoops of ice cream on a worksheet.

“Mommy, I like math,” the kindergartner said.

“Vanilla ice cream is yummy. What flavor should I do for this one?” she asked her mother, Bethany, as she pointed to another scoop.

Paige settled on cherry and reached for a red marker. Down the hall, her sister, Abigail, studied for a math test in her bedroom.

The Diehls are learning this year at the Janesville School District’s online school, ARISE Virtual Academy, along with other students and families who shifted to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The online school’s enrollment has exploded from 243 students last year to 3,097 full-time students and an additional 786 hybrid students this fall.

Abigail is a freshman who takes classes at Parker High School in the morning and returns home for afternoon classes at ARISE.

A learning curve

Bethany and Abigail say the online learning curve has been steep.

“For me, it hasn’t been great with the transition from middle school to high school and being online. It’s been challenging, and I haven’t been getting the best grades,” Abigail said.

“I thought there would be more teacher involvement, and if I need help I need to set up a meeting online just to get an answer to a question. You can send an email, but you can get a response in 30 minutes or it could be a couple hours,” she said.

But ARISE has been a great fit for Katarina Dries, a sophomore at Craig High School who is also learning via the hybrid model.

Dries is taking classes not offered at ARISE at Craig, such as AP physics, Chinese 4, symphony orchestra and AP calculus.

She said a lot of her friends and classmates tell her that they have a hard time learning online because they struggle to stay motivated.

“For me, though, I really like being online. It’s just easy for me,” she said. “There’s no time between classes that I have to pass from one class to the other. I can just go straight, click the tab, go right there; it’s just a lot more efficient for me. I can learn well online because I’m a visual learner, and I know that I can just read and then I can retain that information.”

Dries said she likes the flexible schedule at the online school.

“The main thing is that I can work ahead and set my own pace. I don’t have to worry about the school having the pace set with other kids, and I can adjust it to my needs.”

In the Diehl home, learning at ARISE has been more complicated because Paige needs her mother’s help with her kindergarten activities.

Bethany took a picture of her youngest daughter’s math assignment Tuesday, emailed it to Paige’s school email and placed the photo in Google Drive before submitting the photo to Paige’s teacher.

At 5, Paige can’t read yet and is still learning how to use a computer. Bethany works evenings, so she is around to help with school. If she worked during the day, Bethany said she doubts that ARISE would work for her family.

“So far, I haven’t really found anything that is working well,” Bethany said. “We thought it was going to be totally different than what it is. I feel like there is no teacher involvement.”

The Diehl family thought more teacher video lectures and hands-on learning would be offered at ARISE instead of computer-generated work.

“I really thought that it was going to be a little bit more. I mean, I went into it knowing that I was going to need to be a facilitator and that I was going to need to help her. I did not realize I was going to be the teacher in my mind. That is what I feel like I am. I am the teacher,” Bethany said.

She said she sometimes worries whether Paige is receiving the same level of education that her peers get in person.

“Is doing it this way, where I’m just regurgitating what is on the screen to her, is she really having an understanding?” Bethany asked. “Next year, when I send her to school, because that is my goal, is she going to be at the same level as the other kids?”

How does it work?

Students have optional Google Meets with their teachers each morning, but contact is up to the students for the rest of the day. If Katarina or Abigail need help, they must set up a virtual meeting or send questions via email.

For the Diehls, that hasn’t been a smooth process. Bethany said she didn’t know Abigail was struggling until the first weekly report. She wishes teachers would have reached out when they saw Abigail having trouble, but she noted they have been helpful when her daughter reaches out to them.

When students log in, they can see assignments due for that day and the entire semester. Both families’ students say they have enjoyed being able to work ahead in some classes so they can focus more attention on others.

“It’s been really nice. I really like being able to set my own schedule and just being able to work when I want,” Katarina said.

Both families experienced early issues.

The Dries family still didn’t have access to the online textbooks for Advanced Placement courses this week, but teachers are working around that issue. Katarina wishes she could interact with her classmates at ARISE, but being at school part time alleviates some of that concern.

The Diehls have seen quirks with the learning platform. During a history lesson, one of Abigail’s teachers told her that her answer was correct but the system wanted it to be framed in a different way, so it was wrong.

During a kindergarten reading lesson, Paige was asked to pick a word that started with the letter “S.” Two words started with “S,” so she picked one of them, but the system had the other word as the correct answer. Despite picking a word that started with “S,” Paige got the answer wrong.

Shannon Concord has three elementary students enrolled at ARISE. Her middle school-age daughter has severe cerebral palsy and is in the district’s Homebound Learning program, in which specialists and teachers educate students with health challenges at home.

That program is being conducted virtually this year.

“This year, Mom is being the extension of our kiddos’ team … following through with their direction during virtual therapy times in particular, being their hands,” Concord wrote in an email. “The workload will take some adjusting to as all is being done at home with Mom filling in for each therapist/teacher role.”

The support staffers for Concord’s daughter, including a physical therapist and assistive technology specialist, have worked with the family before and have made the transition to online school easier for her daughter, she said.

“As odd as things are right now, delving into virtual learning and therapies, and as overwhelming as things could be, we are fortunate to have an incredibly knowledgeable supportive team working with us,” Concord wrote.

Concord said her kids have also experienced system quirks with grading and getting district answers to questions or issues, but teachers have been helpful.

Despite their early concerns and struggles to manage the new learning model, the families say they plan to stay at the virtual school.

Katarina said she would continue to take hybrid classes if she has that option.

“I really like the schedule that I have right now,” she said. “And even though the AP classes are pretty hard online, like the AP U.S. History class—that’s pretty hard—but my teacher is really nice. The teachers all work with me, and they always keep me updated and send emails every day.”

Katarina’s mother, Alenka, acknowledged that ARISE is not for everybody. The virtual school works best for those who are “intrinsically motivated,” she said.

She said the school has been a blessing for her daughter in the past and this fall, and she hopes others will give it a chance.

“We’re just on the journey, and I have no complaints because I understand that they’re (new teachers) learning, too, and I think people just have to chill,” she said. “There will be mistakes made on each part.”

Bethany said her family will continue to adapt. She said she appreciates that help is there when needed.

“It is challenging, but it is something that every day we learn something a little bit more to deal with and how to adapt it to our family’s needs. We just have to keep learning.”