Going The Distance: Who Are Wyoming's Virtual Learners?

Nov 13, 2015

Credit Photo by Ikhlasul Amal, Flickr Creative Commons


Inside the home of the Williams family, in Centennial, Wyoming, it looks like a cross between a classroom and a call center. Five children, ages six through 16 are wearing headsets and staring at computer screens.

“Mom, what are we doing next?” yells 6-year-old Selah Williams.

“I think we’ll do reading,” says Liz Williams. “Do you want to get your storybook out?”

The Williams kids are full-time students at Wyoming Virtual Academy—or WYVA—one of two statewide virtual public schools in Wyoming. Liz says WYVA allows her to be more hands-on with their learning.

“I can see how they’re doing on their progress,” says Liz. “It’ll show for each class. And we don’t have to deal with some of the peer pressure stuff that most kids have to deal with.”

Fourteen-year-old Elijah Williams sits at a workspace adorned with county fair ribbons. The 10th grader’s classes include modern history, Spanish and web design—all taken through an online interface that includes chat boxes and teleconferences. This is the only type of school Elijah’s ever been to.

“You get the structure of the courses that they already lay out for you in brick-and-mortar school, but you also get the ability to like work ahead,” Elijah says.

This works for the Williams family, who live 30 miles from the nearest middle school. Liz says she would prefer to home-school her kids—and pick the books and activities they’ll use, but public virtual schools provide that stuff for free.

“We can still teach our values through the curriculum they’re giving and this is what other kids are being taught, so they’re on a similar playing field,” says Liz. “I do think the independence that this offers, similarly to homeschool, prepares them better than your traditional public school.”

Last school year, 1,051 students went to full-time virtual school in Wyoming—just over one percent of the state’s public school population. As interest in online schools surges nationwide, state education officials are working to improve and expand this option for kids.

A Wyoming Department of Education survey found that most families choose virtual schools to avoid problems with other kids—and to be able to learn at their own pace. Some, like the Williams family, live in rural areas or converted from homeschooling.

There are just two statewide virtual schools: Wyoming Virtual Academy—which is a program of Niobrara County School District with roughly 700 students—and Wyoming Connections Academy, a program of Big Horn County School District with about 350 kids.

Administrators at both schools say about half of their students are in high school. 

“We serve students with all different kinds of needs,” says Wyoming Connections vice principal Mike Lunde. “We serve very high-performing students. We have a student that’s 12 years old in 11th grade. And we also have students that are 18 and 19 years old and are sophomores by credit.”

In the six years the school’s been open, Lunde says he’s seen attitudes about this growing model of education change

“People are a lot more open to it,” says Lunde. “Whereas, at one point when you would tell people, ‘I’m an online student or I’m a distance ed student,’ people might look at them like they’re from Mars or something.”

Lunde’s leading a field trip today to UW’s Planetarium—a chance for classmates from around the state to meet face-to-face. Eighth-grader Makenna Cisco is here from Cheyenne. She started at Connections in third grade, after having some problems at school.

“Just the amount of bullying that was in public school,” says Cisco. “People just made fun of me for, like, my shyness and how quiet I was.”

“It was a fight to get her up in the morning and a fight to just get her out the door,” says Cisco’s grandmother Debbie Wolititch. “Most of the time, she was late and then she would get in trouble because she had too many tardies. You know, and, she didn’t want to go.”

Bullying is a factor for about 40 percent of students who make the switch to Wyoming’s virtual schools. Makenna says Wyoming Connections solved her problem.   

“Well, I’ve been thinking about maybe trying high school, but if that doesn’t work I’m coming right back to Connections,” she says.

Not every student’s experience is as positive as Makenna’s. A study by the National Education Policy Center found that graduation rates at virtual schools are less than half the average for all public schools.

But here in Wyoming, it’s hard to figure out how virtual schools are doing—because the data is hidden from view. More on that in the next part of the series. 

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.