Big Horn Basin Parents Push For Wyoming’s First Online Charter School

A Big Horn Basin group is pushing to have a charter school approved this summer. It would become the first charter school in the northwestern part of Wyoming and the state’s first online-only charter school.

Leo Wolfson

June 22, 20246 min read

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(Greg Johnson, Cowboy State Daily)

A group of parents in the Big Horn Basin region of northwest Wyoming are pushing for a charter school in their area. If approved, it would become the first charter school in western Wyoming.

Vitalis Charter Academy would be a remote learning-based public charter school offering a tailored educational experience to the individual needs of each student, according to the group. It would be the first online-only charter school in the state.

Cody resident Lisa Oilar is the founding member of Vitalis.

“Just trying to give parents a lot of choices,” Oilar said of the proposed school’s mission. “We’re not setting a standard curriculum. We’re saying that we want to provide parents with the choice to choose what’s best for their kids.”

Oilar has past experience working in a charter school in a different state and in Park County School District No. 1 and believes the addition of Vitalis to the local ecosystem would significantly improve the educational options offered in northwest Wyoming.


She mentioned how there has been an explosion of teaching and curriculum styles that have emerged from the post-COVID-19 era of education.

For instance, if parents want a student to learn Latin at Vitalis in the third grade, they could do that, or they could also forgo Latin entirely.

Fellow founding board member Stephanie Bennett-Brown used the example of how a sophomore high school student who wants to learn how to do car mechanics can go to an approved local mechanic shop and have their public education money used to receive an education from that mechanic under a set curriculum.

“Those options are just wide open when we take the classroom walls away,” she said.

Since the school would predominantly use online learning, Oilar said this will help reduce overhead costs and red tape related to the teaching of certain classes and buying equipment that more traditional schools have to go through.

Homeschool Target

Even though it would be a no-tuition public school, Vitalis would specifically try to target current and prospective homeschool students as its key enrollment demographic.

“Their families are doing this stuff, they’re coordinating these kinds of activities and things for their children,” Oilar said. “The target is to get those resources to children who are already homeschooling so they can get the best possible education to kids who are in that setting.

Oilar mentioned how there are nearly 650 homeschool students in the Big Horn Basin and 4,000 statewide.

“There’s a reason there’s 650 homeschool students. People are not happy with the traditional school setting,” she said. “I think that brick-and-mortar schools are struggling.”

The basic purpose of a charter school is to provide more options to parents who want their children to get a different education than what is provided by a standard public school with no extra cost.

Although charter schools can’t provide religious curriculum, two of the state-sponsored charter schools in Wyoming have curriculum provided by Hillsdale College in Michigan, a school noted — and sometimes criticized — for its conservative policies.

Some people have also criticized charter schools for weakening traditional public schools and draining school district resources. If a charter school is approved by a local school district in Wyoming, it’s the responsibility of that district to help pay for and support the school.

Oilar stressed that the goal of Vitalis isn’t to chip away or hinder traditional public schools, and that those schools will still be the best fit for many students.

Bennett-Brown, who attended public schools growing up, said many people are turning away from private schools because of the tuition and to homeschooling strictly out of the desire to have more flexibility in their children’s education. Oilar said parents are tired of “cookie-cutter” curriculum options.

“Sometimes they have safety concerns for their kids, sometimes they have mental health concerns for their child,” Bennett-Brown said. “Sometimes they deal with anxiety and need to be in a smaller situation.”

What’s Next?

Vitalis is working to get its application submitted to the Wyoming Charter School Authorizing Board before the deadline in late July.

Within the biennial budget passed this year by the Legislature, the state authorizing board has approval to accept one charter school in the western half of Wyoming, in addition to the three charter schools that have already been approved by the board. The three state-sponsored charter schools are in Mills, Cheyenne and Chugwater, while eight exist in total, all in the southern or central part of the state.

“I think it’s time, I think Wyoming has felt the pressure of being behind,” Bennett-Brown said. “I think this is a great opportunity to propel ourselves again and put forth a model and say these models can work too.”

If approved, Vitalis plans to start by offering K-6 classes for the 2025/2026 school year.

According to its website, the school would guarantee enrollment for 200 students in its first year but has already had 147 students express an interest in enrolling. Oilar said it would be the intention of the school to continue to grow and add grade levels each year. It also plans to eventually accept students living statewide.

“No other charter schools are taking that approach, most are big brick and mortar schools,” Oilar said. “Our goal is outreach, to reach out to communities’ whose families want support and get those dollars back to kids.”

Crowded Field

Previously, the only way a charter school could be approved in Wyoming was if a school district accepted it. Laws were eased on charter schools in Wyoming in 2021 and two years later the Authorizing Board was created.

But state law still says only one more charter school may be approved by an entity that’s not a school district before July 1, 2028, so there’s a lot at stake for Vitalis with its upcoming application.

Other competing bids are expected from proposed schools in Sheridan and Alpine. Cloud Peak Academy in Sheridan was rejected by its local school district last summer for approval after missing the deadline to apply. Oilar said Vitalis received similar rejections from 12 different school districts across the Big Horn Basin.

Simply having the opportunity to present Vitalis to the board, Oilar said, would be “amazing,” and that she doesn’t look at the application process as a competition.

“Some community is going to get a great option,” she said.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter