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School choice, virtual learning broaden options for Wyoming students

in News/Education

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.”

Computer standards to get another look in Riverton meeting

in News/Education
Wyoming computer science standards in K-12 education

By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily

Eric Trowbridge understands the importance of a computer science education.

As chief executive officer of The Array School of Design & Technology, a private school in Cheyenne, he oversees a computer training program that includes teaching web development and coding for students 17 years and older. 

“It’s not a question of how important it is to the future; it is the future,” Trowbridge said of computer technology. “Every bit of the future for Wyoming is going to require computer science skills. If you do not know 20 to 25 years from now how to talk to computers, how to write code, you will not have a job.  Plain and simple.”

A big step toward this future will occur at 8 a.m. April 25, when the State Board of Education considers Wyoming’s draft K-12 computer science standards during its meeting in Riverton, he said. 

“Adopting the standards will put Wyoming at the top of all states for developing such a K-12 program in computer science,” Trowbridge said. 

Wyoming is believed to be the first state to have such standards. Standards were developed after the Wyoming Legislature passed a bill in 2018 to require all public schools to offer a computer science education to K-12 students by the 2022-23 school year. They must be ready for implementation.

The Legislature’s action is a “leapfrog moment,” Trowbridge said. “Wyoming has been so far behind in (computer education); to jump ahead is a pioneering (move) that no one else has done before. We’re no longer the caboose.”

The Wyoming Department of Education organized a Standards Review Committee about a year ago in response to the legislation. The committee, made up of educators statewide, developed content and performance standards, which outline what to teach in each grade.

When the Education Department presented proposed standards to the Wyoming State Board of Education for approval at a meeting on March 21, the day ended with the standards left in limbo. While many who attended supported the standards, many others, notably other educators, took exception to the proposal and said the standards were too complex and would overwhelm overburdened teachers.

Others questioned the cost of implementation, estimated at $12.3 million, given the fact no extra funding was made available to put the standards in place.

The state board then rejected two proposals, one to approve the standards as submitted and another to send them back to the education agency for more work. Instead, the board directed the Standards Review Committee to keep working before the board’s April 25 meeting.

“I am incredibly disappointed,” Trowbridge said, adding that the move would water down the standards.  “We literally are putting it in a trash bag and throwing it out the window.”

But Walt Wilcox, chairman of the State Board of Education, said the board’s action should not be seen as opposition to the standards, but instead as allowing more time to study ways to put them in place.

“No one is opposed to it (computer science standards), not the board or educators,” he said. “They are opposed to not having plans (in place) to do it.”

A lot of concern comes from elementary teachers who have not been taught how to teach the subject, Wilcox said. He pointed out the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges are just now putting in place an introductory certification track for teachers in computer science and programming.

“Some teachers are feeling overwhelmed and unprepared wondering how (the standards) will get taught,” he said.

Others against adoption said they worried about what other subjects they would need to scuttle to provide time for the new standards.

The review committee has met once since the March 21 meeting, said Kari Eakins, the Wyoming Department of Education’s Chief Policy Officer.

During that meeting in Lander, “the review committee met consensus and felt like they were able to meet concerns,” she said.  

There will be another public comment period before April 25, she said. If the state board approves the standards, they will go to Gov. Mark Gordon for a 90-day review and for his decision.

“We’re doing something that Wyoming has never done before – adding a content area to the common core of knowledge,” Eakins said. “We are in a little bit of uncharted territory.”

Right now, as far as having enough time to implement the standards, the process is in “safe territory,” she said.

Wyoming State Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, supports the standards.

“The standards really reflect what we’re trying to get after,” she said.

Ellis, a member of the Joint Education Committee that sponsored the 2018 legislation, said she was surprised and a little concerned about the outcome of the March 21 meeting and added legislators need to be kept informed about the process.

Wyoming’s students could lead the computer science field if the standards are adopted and if graduates can find places to work, Trowbridge said. 

He noted Array, formed in 2016, has placed 80 percent of its 33 graduates in computer-related jobs in Wyoming within 180 days of graduation. Their starting salaries are about $48,000 a year.  But it hasn’t been easy because tech presence is not that strong in the state, Trowbridge said. 

“If we don’t pass (the standards), we will never be able to recruit tech companies to create the jobs,” Trowbridge said.

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