School choice, virtual learning broaden options for Wyoming students

By Annaliese Wiederspahn, Cowboy State Daily

Imagine your seventh grader, headphones on, attending algebra class at your kitchen table. Or watching your fourth grader wrap up a Wyoming history lecture at a coffee shop.

For students at the Wyoming Virtual Academy, all they need to attend class is a computer and a reliable internet connection.

Public school parents, teachers, administrators and students from WYVA joined homeschoolers, private schoolers and school choice advocates for a “Capitol Day” gathering last Friday at the Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne.

They gathered for breakfast, presentations and a tour of downtown Cheyenne with the goal of supporting school choice and advocating for keeping the variety of educational options available to Wyoming kids as broad as possible.

WYVA is a school without traditional classrooms, a playground, a cafeteria or a gymnasium. The entirely online, tuition-free, full-time public school is a program of Niobrara County School District No. 1 in Lusk, but students log-in to classes from all across Wyoming. Some even attend from beyond Wyoming’s borders.

Celebrating its tenth year in existence, WYVA serves Wyoming students from kindergarten through high school.

“We have ranchers. We have farmers. We have families that travel. We have military families that have done school with us from overseas but they get to continue to have some consistency all the way from (kindergarten) up to (12th grade),” said Jennifer Schultze, a WYVA music teacher. “I think there was that need in our state of giving kids options where they weren’t traveling in a vehicle for an hour or two from the ranch into town.”

The event was hosted by the Wyoming Chapter of the National Coalition for Public School Options and attended by several state lawmakers including State Senator Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne) and State Representative Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne).

Students, teachers, administrators and parents swapped personal homeschooling and virtual learning stories, while always returning to the same refrain: whatever reason for choosing a particular schooling environment, that choice must be left in the hands of parents. Or, as was emblazoned on the t-shirts handed out at the door: #TrustParents.

“We have these certified teachers who just love the kids and they are really, really great people,” said WYVA Principal Joe Heywood. “I won’t ever leave Wyoming Virtual Academy just because I don’t want to leave this great group of teachers. I found kind of a gold mine of good people.”

Parents and administrators at WYVA say the quality of the teachers and the flexible alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools allow kids who might not otherwise make it to graduation day to flourish.

“As a high school teacher, I have watched kids graduate under really challenging circumstances where they may have not been able to before with a family member with cancer, maybe they have a truck driver as a father and they can travel with him,” Schultze said. “We’ve had lots of teen parents that have graduated with us successfully.”

Homeschool mom Amy Nelson says there are lots of different reasons why parents choose to school from home, but whatever the environment, it’s crucial that parents retain the choice of where and how their child is educated.

“Traditional school doesn’t work for everybody,” said Nelson. “For me it was just, this is what I want to do. This is the time I don’t get back with my kids. They are thriving and they are enjoying it. So as long as that’s happening we will continue to make the choice to school at home.”

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