RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Future animator in the making and River Falls High School Student of the Term Serena Wussler is hyper-focused on perfecting her art. She's got dozens of sketch pads at her River Falls home. She loves to draw Pokemon and anime characters.
It's clear the rising senior has talent. However, she has to focus on finishing school before she starts spreading her animator wings. However, school as we know it has always been difficult for Serena.
"I would be sitting at my desk in the classroom and there would be some movement out of the corner of my eye and it would be a student tapping their foot on the ground," Serena said. "Normally to some, that wouldn't be a bother, but for me with that constant movement out of the corner of my eye--it is a distraction for my brain the way it's wired."
Navigating in-person learning while being on the spectrum and living with anxiety was reflecting negatively on her grades, too. So when distance learning hit and made things difficult for so many of us, for Serena at her home desk-- it was actually a blessing.
"Finally we've got something that works 100%," Serena's mother Sara Wussler said. "We've had other things that have worked, but not at a 100%. Finally, we're getting to that point, and she was absorbing [her materials], and not just for the time, she was absorbing it long term. That would last into her quizzes and tests, which she always struggled with."
That's the kind of magic Online 728 assistant principal Dr. Meagan Rathbun has seen for the past seven years.
Online high school has been around for ISD 728 which covers Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman. However, when the pandemic pushed the district, they came up with a K-12 online program, ready to launch this coming school year.
Why? Because of kids like Serena who benefit from something a little different, year-round.
"Seeing students who would come in constantly failing classes, not gaining credits for graduation and then watching them change because they didn't have those distractions, they didn't have those barriers," Dr. Rathbun said. "It's an incredible feeling to see that."
Especially with the context of the delta variant, the model will be coming in handy.
"Everyone is watching and we probably won't have much warning like everyone else," Rathbun said, in terms of the delta variant and the potential need for all schools to switch to distance learning, like last year. "I think with our online program that's part of the reason. Not just serving our diverse learners but also having something in place where we don't need to make model changes.
"We really want to promote this online program not as a distance learning COVID response solution," she continued. "But as a permanent option for students who just really went through distance learning and thought, 'this is great.'"
As for the Wussler household, with school still a few weeks away, they came to an important decision.
"We have decided for her to go back, half and half," Sara said. "She will do her mornings at school, art classes, and any hands-on classes, or PE classes. She can do that at the high school and in the afternoon she can come home and do English classes, history classes, that's not hands-on. She can do that online, because the big thing with her, with Serena being on the spectrum is the socialization piece, she missed a lot of that last year."
Sara added that she thought it was important for Serena to at least get a little taste of what it's like to be a senior in high school.
Serena agreed, said she was a bit apprehensive, but added she was excited to learn all she can, while she's in high school.
As for Online 728, parents in ISD 728 will have a choice to either enroll their student for in-person learning or online learning. While the district doesn't encourage parents to make a change mid-year, Rathbun said if a need arises, they will review each student's situation, case-by-case.