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Due to a resignation, Newcastle High School turns to virtual math learning to fill the gap

A group of high schoolers sit at desks on their laptops.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Newcastle High School freshmen Algebra I students focus on their virtual lesson of the day. Laptops are issued by the school and allow students to work wirelessly unless a hardwired connection is required, which the school also provides cables for (which are seen in the distance hanging in front of the whiteboard).

The school day is getting underway on a Monday morning. A classroom of just over 20 freshmen Algebra I students are sitting at individual desks facing the front of the room. But instead of taking out notebooks, pens, and pencils, the students opened their school-issued laptops and plug in headphones for the day’s lesson. Students are issued school laptops on which to do their work and conduct their lessons with instructors, who teach from around the country.

Students and staff at Newcastle High School have had to adapt to a virtual learning environment for some of their math classes. That’s because a teacher resigned in early September and the school was unable to find an in-person replacement.

Class periods are 90 minutes long. The first hour is dedicated to the day’s lesson.

A teacher kneels next to a teenage boy and helps him with a math problem on his laptop.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Teacher Sonya Tysdal (right) works with a student on finding the solution to a math problem during a work period after virtual lessons have been completed.

“So if you multiplied by two, then it canceled that two out, and if you multiply this side by two, you have a times two. But this two is gone, right? That's what you wanted. You're getting a little bit closer to getting B all by itself. Then what did you do for the next step?” asks curriculum director and math teacher Sonya Tysdal to a student needing assistance.

“And then multiply that by H,” the student responds.

Tysdal went around the room helping students as the need arose. It would be too much for the existing math teacher to take on teaching all of the math classes fully, but Tysdal helps out. Algebra I and II classes are taught online.

“When we couldn't find that live teacher that was here, then we tried to find the next best thing that still was giving quality instruction to students and some pretty good learning opportunities for them so that we wouldn't lose out on developing their mathematical understanding,” Tysdal said.

Long-term substitute Sam Abernathy makes sure everything runs smoothly between the students and the three online teachers.

A computer screen displays the activity on 17 different students' screens.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
A master screen at long-term substitute Sam Abernathy's desktop computer shows what all of the students in an Algebra I class are doing during a virtual work session on the morning of March 20. Virtual instructors are in touch with in-classroom staff if a student needs attention.

Logged on to a desktop computer in a corner of the classroom, he monitored what each student is doing on their screen by a master screen on his computer. He’s also in touch with the virtual instructors throughout the class via a text group and whispers not to disturb students.

“I have them individually and also have the ability to talk to them in a group, all three at one time,” he whispered, trying not to distract students.

The group chat allows instructors to let him know if there’s a student that needs attention or is falling asleep from what they’re seeing on their webcam. The high school partnered with Carnegie Learning to have these online classes. They use a program called Mathia, a component of the company and Canvas, an online learning platform to interact online.

“When we're doing our work, we can ask questions. So we'll just type in to ask her what we need, and then she'll [the instructor] respond to us by either [typing a response to] our question,” said freshman Algebra I student Drew Conzelman. “Then for our homework, we'll just do it on Edulastic, and then sometimes we'll submit that on Canvas. We'll take a screenshot of that and then submit it to Canvas.”

A man and a teenage girl sit at a desk as he helps her with homework.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Long-term substitute Sam Abernathy (right) helps a student with her math problems at his desk where he monitors what students are doing on their screens at his desktop master computer.

He said that he likes math but that the transition to online learning has presented its challenges.

“But I think I'd rather have in-class teachers instead, like teaching, but I like it overall,” he said.

Sophomore Taylor Conklin echoed some of those same feelings but said the second half of the year has been easier for her than the first.

“I'd say it's pretty interactive, I think I like it, but I think I'd rather have in-class teachers instead, like teaching, but I like it overall,” she said. “[For the] first semester, I had a teacher and she was kind of, she just kind of lectured us the whole time. So, I found that class to be really boring, and I kind of dreaded going to it. But then this semester, I have a really good teacher and he's really good about incorporating us and making sure we understand. So, this semester has been a lot better.”

Junior Teegan Hathaway admitted he’s not a fan of math. He’s taking Algebra II this year and said there’s a lot of room for students to ask for help along the way.

“They've [online teachers], grown to understand that it's hard to teach an online class if you're used to having an in-person thing, and they try and help as much as possible and they try [to]contact you as much as possible,” he said. “They're open to emails and stuff.”

Bryce Hoffman is the principal of the school. He didn’t know how the transition to online learning would affect student outcomes but now believes it hasn’t disrupted things too much.

Two posters demonstrating mathematical concepts hang on the wall above two whiteboards.
Hugh Cook
Wyoming Public Media
Math posters hang on the walls of the classroom where freshmen Algebra I students are learning virtually at Newcastle High School.

“It's been pretty neat to see some kids that in the past, they may have struggled with engaging with the teacher or with discipline issues in the classroom, flourish or do better actually in the online environment,” he said. “That was something that was unexpected.”

Hoffman is unaware of any other school in the state depending on a virtual class for as long as Newcastle High School has.

“I'm proud of our students for being flexible,” he said. “This was a scenario that came upon us quickly, and it took us some time to find a good solution, [an] idea to help solve our problem.”

A math teacher has been hired to provide in-person instruction for the next school year, making this the last semester of virtual learning. This will cut down on the school’s expenses as well, as the virtual math classes have cost about double what in-person instruction would.

But for now, students will have a bit more screen time until the end of this school year.

Corrected: March 28, 2023 at 10:03 PM MDT
This feature has been corrected to indicate Sonya Tysdal is only the curriculum director, not the other in-person math teacher.
Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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