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Going The Distance: Virtual School Performance Data Is Hidden From View

Aaron Schrank

With about 600 students, Wyoming Virtual Academy—or WYVA—is the largest online learning program in the state. But the only physical trace of it is a nondescript 3-person office building in Lusk.

“This office here, we have our registrar here, our compliancy coordinator, and myself the operations manager,” says Kristen Stauffer.

She points out a map of Wyoming hanging in the office lobby. It’s dotted with pushpins—each representing a recent WYVA graduate.  

“We have kids in every part of Wyoming,” says Stauffer. “Some really little towns and some great big towns, so, they’re pretty much everywhere.”

What people really want to know is not where these kids are from—but how they’re doing in school—and that’s not easy to track. WYVA’s Academic Director Nicole Tiley says her students score above the state average on the ACT, but admits the program’s graduation rates are far below average.

“A lot of times, WYVA is a last resort for students,” says Tiley. “So, it’s hard to graduate students in 4 years and have them earn 28 credits when they come to us as juniors with 10 or 12 credits.”

While most parents of public school students in Wyoming can access all sorts of data on how their child’s school is doing, precise graduation rates, PAWS scores and ACT results for the state’s two online learning providers are not available to the public.   

The reason that data is hidden, Tiley says, is the same reason the program is headquartered here in Niobrara County.        

“So, Wyoming Virtual Academy is not a school,” says Tiley. “We are a distance-learning program in the Niobrara County School District. All of our students are enrolled in Niobrara County Elementary School, Middle School or High School.”

So, WYVA’s accountability data is lumped in with those schools. In recent years, Niobrara County School District’s graduation rate was less than 50 percent.

“It’s important to understand that that only tells part of the story,” says the district’s superintendent, Aaron Carr. “Our actual brick and mortar graduation rate is in the mid-90 percent—for the students of Niobrara County. However, WYVA students—even though they may live in Sheridan, Green River, Evanston, you name it—they’re still a Niobrara County High School student.

WYVA attracts gifted students who want to accelerate learning, but also those who are behind on credits, were unsuccessful in traditional schools, or are otherwise at risk for dropping out.

“So that is a factor that plays into making us look like a failing school when we’re not,” Carr says.

While both Carr and WYVA would love to see the data separated out for transparency’s sake, Carr says he has a moral responsibility to students who need WYVA, no matter what it means for his district’s performance data.

“We’re going to do the right thing,” says Carr. “Let’s say for instance that we have to take a risk and know that that student may be a dropout, but they need WYVA, we’re going to take them in. We have to. We got into this field to help kids.”

Wyoming Virtual Academy was the last resort for Patrick Flores. Patrick is diagnosed with autism. He says he wasn’t getting the attention he needed at his Cheyenne elementary school.

“The teachers wouldn’t help me even if I had my hand up,” he says.

Patrick’s mom, Esther Flores, finally pulled him out after several destructive episodes in his fourth grade classroom.

“He had a lot of isolation, seclusion, and restraints,” says Esther. “The last time he destroyed a classroom, they called me to pick him up, and when I arrived, there were four adults on top of him. We were told by the principal then that the next incident, they would call the police. I just said, ‘well, he’s not being educated right now. There has to be another option.’”

Patrick couldn’t go back to a classroom, so that option was WYVA, where he’s been ever since. The 14-year-old 8th grader learns at his own pace in a controlled environment. Esther says he’s finally engaged with learning, but still catching up.

“We’re hoping he can graduate from WYVA with a diploma,” she says. 

The only thing missing from Patrick’s education right now is social interaction with real-life classmates.

“Getting to see their faces would be kind of nice, instead of just trying to hear their voices,” he jokes.

Luckily, Laramie County School District 1, where Patrick lives, allows virtual learners to take traditional courses.

“So recently we did inquire about having him taking one or two classes back in brick and mortar now that he’s doing so much better,” Esther says. 

These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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