PLEASANT PRAIRIE — Maria von Ellm-McKenna has taken school with her almost everywhere she’s gone for the last four years.
Her classroom has no walls. Learning takes place at home, her mom’s car and more than half the time at an ice arena, where she spends long hours training as a competitive skater and performer and as a coach at the Pleasant Prairie IcePlex.
Von Ellm-McKenna, 18, is among the students who live within the Kenosha Unified School District boundaries while attending school online to accommodate her busy schedule. Wisconsin Connections Academy, a virtual online school, has offered her the flexibility to attend school in a challenging and supportive environment, she said.
“For me, it was difficult to find a schedule that would work. Both my parents work in Illinois, and they couldn’t get me there in time for practice. I was training three hours a day,” she said of the logistical dilemma she had in finding the right fit. “My parents couldn’t home-school me because they both work, and so we began to look at online school options.”
Wisconsin Connections, chartered through the Appleton School District, was the state’s first full-time, tuition-free public online school for students in grades K-12. It is one of 40 such virtual academies in the state.
Kenosha Unified also has a combined elementary, middle and high school virtual charter through its eSchool program, which does not require open enrollment for students who live in the district.
Virtual academies, also known as online charter schools, are one of a number of options students have when looking to enroll outside the traditional learning environment.
Von Ellm-McKenna, who went to traditional brick-and-mortar schools through middle school (she attended Mahone), said training in Buffalo Grove, Ill., and countless competitions on the weekends involved long hours away from home, making it difficult for her to take classes with structured time periods at Indian Trail High School and Academy, her boundary school.
Doing the research
Her mother, Sandy, did some research with virtual academies and found Wisconsin Connections, which had a curriculum that would challenge her daughter as well as allow for the flexibility needed to accommodate daily trips to ice rinks for training and competitions.
Along with the core offerings, she has taken Advanced Placement courses including psychology, U.S. history and environmental sciences. She said the most challenging courses she’s taken so far have been psychology and physics.
“I think the biggest misconception is that it’s not challenging. The truth is you have to be dedicated, and they hold their students accountable,” she said. “You can only have a certain amount of overdue work.”
She admitted that, at first, she wasn’t too keen on the idea of a virtual school. Going into her freshman year, she had friends at Mahone who were attending Indian Trail.
“To give that aspect up, it was a little tricky,” she said.
When she started attending virtual school, she was given a free laptop and headset, which has lasted her four years, so she could attend the weekly classes and lesson presentations online and to complete regular assessments and tests.
“They have finals, too,” she said. “It’s like regular school.”
During the “live” virtual classes, she is able to ask questions of teachers and communicates with them regularly through email, she said. She credits Jeff LeMahieu, the academy’s dean, with helping her make the transition to online school.
“He’s been nothing but helpful,” she said.
Von Ellm-McKenna said working her way up the competitive skating ladder meant long hours at the rink.
“The first two years, I would never work at home. I would always work at the rink,” she said, recalling her routine of waking up each day at 4:45 a.m. and riding with her mother on the way to her job in Illinois before being dropped off to train. “I’d be there from 6 in the morning until 5 at night, when she’d come to pick me up.”
She would skate until noon, and the rest of the afternoon, she’d be “in class” or doing homework.
“It was very tiring and exhausting, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.
The years of training have paid off as she has “retired” as a junior gold medalist in two tracks — free skate and moves in the field. She is now considered a senior skater, but no longer competes.
“I do it for fun. And I do ice shows,” she said.
She also teaching students ages 1½ to 50 and offers therapeutic skating for children with disabilities.
Moves — off ice
Now, she’s preparing for her next move: going to college. Although her diploma will come from the virtual academy, she is rounding out her senior year with two Advanced Placement classes — calculus and government — as a part-time student at Indian Trail.
“It’s actually nice having the pen and paper again. It brought me back to middle school. Obviously, this is a different situation,” said Von Ellm-McKenna, who maintains a 4.0 grade point average. “I definitely don’t regret my decision to go the online school route. It’s prepared me for college and my career.”
She said she expects to graduate with 25 credits, two more than what is required.
In the fall, she will be attending Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, where she will study medical science, cell biology and biochemistry.