Kindergarten to Grade 12 online registrations soar, fundraising, performance questions

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A quintuple of students taking distance education in the past year has resulted in changes in the study and practice of virtual education in Wyoming.

Sofia Jeremiah, WyoFile

Nine years ago, D’Ron and Jason Campbell made a decision that seemed a bit drastic at the time. They took their daughter Kaitlyn, then in fifth grade, from the local elementary school in the small town of Saratoga and enrolled her in one of Wyoming’s virtual education programs.

The Campbells ultimately decided to enroll their three other children in the Wyoming Virtual Academy because D’Ron, a former mechanical engineer, wanted all of his children to “go as high as they could and still live here in Saratoga.” . Parents say they are satisfied with the program, which allows their children to participate in sports and debate in their local school district, as well as take AP classes that are not offered in schools in Saratoga.

Kaitlyn is now a freshman at the University of Wyoming. “My transition to college has been basically smooth,” she said.

In the meantime, a more systemic educational transition is underway across the state.

The number of Wyoming students enrolled in virtual education programs quintupled last year, and it is not yet clear how transparent this change will be to K-12 learners in the state or the institutions that serve them.

A long-term program

“The fact that we are a rural border state means that we actually have a lot of families who, for over a decade, instead of their children spending three hours a day on a bus, want to use virtual options and have their own. kids at home at the ranch with them all the time, ”said Kari Eakins, policy officer at the Wyoming Department of Education.

The state launched the Wyoming Equality Network in the early 2000s, according to Eakins. The first iteration of virtual learning in the state was “synchronous,” meaning students and teachers had to be connected at the same time for instruction. This system has not been widely used.

In 2007, the state introduced asynchronous virtual education and a statewide online course repository, Eakins said. Through the establishment of task forces and legislative changes, Wyoming’s virtual education system has gradually evolved. A virtual education advisory committee was formed, a statewide learning management system was put in place, and the state stopped calling the program ‘distance learning’.

Online learning in Wyoming is unique because even statewide programs are attached to a school district, according to Lori Thilmany, the state’s virtual education program manager. “I don’t have an example in another state that looks like the way we do it,” Thilmany said. “They usually have separate funding streams and just a different setup.”

“We hired a lot last year,” said Caroline Hickerson, high school principal of Wyoming Virtual Academy, a statewide program based in the Niobrara County School District. Typically, their students range from children of military families to people with medical disabilities, or even professional musicians or BMX racers who must travel frequently, she said.

However, many families have enrolled their children in virtual education programs for the first time due to the pandemic, Hickerson said. She also saw an increase in enrollments this year because parents did not want their children to wear masks in class. “As soon as [counties] implemented their mask mandate, I just had a flurry of registrations, ”she said.

Last year peak enrollment at Wyoming Connections Academy, another statewide online option in the Big Horn County School District, was 1,311 students, principal Shannon Siebert said. , more than double the previous school year. The academy currently has an average of 680 to 690 students enrolled, she said.

The state of Wyoming as a whole has grown from just over 1,000 students enrolled in virtual education programs to about 5,400 last year, according to Eakins. The number of district-level programs also doubled to 10, she said. Today, there are five statewide virtual education programs, fifteen district-level programs, and approximately 2,000 students currently enrolled.

New methods, measures

The influx of students and programs has resulted in some changes in the state.

“We are learning more about best practices for [virtual education]”Siebert said.” The pandemic has really skyrocketed this research and actually changed some things for the better. “For example, her staff tried to integrate social / emotional learning into the program by bringing together students through things like “friendship circles”.

The addition of more students, programs and COVID-19 relief funds has allowed more state-level research to be done, Eakins said. Only a few years of data have been collected and little analysis has been done on the performance of distance learners compared to those attending brick-and-mortar schools.

In general, virtual students tend to do better in reading than in math, and once they’re in the older classes, virtual students tend not to do as well, according to Eakins, but without an analysis. further, it is difficult to analyze exactly why this is the case.

Wyoming’s evolution in online learners has also raised funding questions.

At the Dec. 13 Joint Appropriations Committee meeting, lawmakers questioned why virtual education students cost the same price per student as brick and mortar, and whether the Wyoming Department of Education had conducted a cost analysis per student. The co-chair, Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) said he wanted to “make sure that we are not essentially creating a bottomless pit for these locations and overpaying for the services provided”.

“We anticipate that the funding discussion will continue,” Eakins told WyoFile.

But when it comes to questions about funding, she said, “I’m not sure if we can give them the cost breakdown that they’re really looking for. We would need to bring in this outside consultant and do it. “

In the meantime, families like the Saratoga Campbells will continue to use a program they say has served them well – although they warn that it is certainly not for everyone.

“I think it would be difficult if you didn’t have someone like me who’s home and who’s involved making sure they’re focused and doing their jobs,” D’Ron said.

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