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Downtown Laramie Evacuated After Man Said He Planted Bombs And Was Going To Shoot People

in News/Crime
Photo by Matt Idler

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

An anonymous man who claimed to be armed with a large rifle announced he had planted bombs in downtown Laramie on Tuesday forcing evacuation of downtown Laramie.

But local police believe the suspect was involved in a bad prank.

Downtown Laramie was evacuated on Tuesday evening after a man called police dispatch around 5 p.m., claiming he was armed with a large rifle and was wanting to shoot people at a business downtown, according to Laramie Police Department spokesman Lt. Ryan Thompson.

The suspect also claimed to have planted an explosive device in a vehicle in the area. Officers responded and secured the area, evacuating several businesses and residences.

Bomb technicians responded and cleared the suspected vehicle, finding no evidence of any threats. The vehicle which was alleged to have the explosive device was not related to the suspect in any way.

Thompson told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that he did not believe the suspect even lived in Wyoming and was just doing the prank to see how police would respond.

“It could be someone trying to gauge our response to try and carry something similar out in the future, but I get the feeling this is more of a prank,” Thompson said. “It’s somebody that needs something to do, unfortunately.”

It took about two hours to clear the scene on Tuesday.

Thompson defined this incident as “swatting,” a criminal harassment tactic of deceiving an emergency service into sending police or emergency services to another person’s address, most often with a false report of a serious emergency such as a murder, hostage situation or mental health emergency.

Swatting is considered a terroristic threat in Wyoming and is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

Thompson said this is not the first time the police department has encountered swatting, but said this incident was more serious, as it included a bomb threat.

Anyone with information related to this crime is encouraged to call CrimeStoppers at 307-742-2273. They could earn a cash reward of up to $1,000 and do not have to give their name. All information is kept strictly confidential.

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Settlement Reached In Wrongful Death Case Involving Former Laramie Cop

in News/Crime

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A settlement has been reached in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the mother of a Laramie man shot to death in 2018 by an Albany County Sheriff’s deputy.

Court documents showed that the federal court was notified on May 2 that a settlement was reached between in the lawsuit filed by Debra Hinkel, the mother of Robert “Robbie” Ramirez, who was shot and killed by Deputy Derek Colling, who has since resigned as a deputy, in November 2018.

No details were given about the settlement, but in her complaint against Colling, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office and Albany County Commissioners, Hinkel was seeking up to $20 million for her son’s death, as she called it a “miscarriage of justice.”

Albany County for Proper Policing, a nonprofit organization headed by state Rep. Karlee Provenza, R-Laramie, praised the news of the settlement on Tuesday.

“We don’t know the terms of the settlement, but we know that it is an important step on the way to justice for Robbie,” the organization wrote on Facebook. “Justice for Robbie is transparency and accountability of law enforcement. Justice for Robbie is mental health professionals responding to calls involving people in crisis. Justice for Robbie is a federal indictment and investigation of Derek Colling and the good ol’ boys who protected him by destroying evidence.”

Colling previously argued that he was exempt from the wrongful death lawsuit due to “qualified immunity,” meaning that government officials cannot be sued for performing their jobs.

Colling shot Ramirez three times after a traffic stop in Laramie in November of 2018. Ramirez was shot after being tasered by Colling, who argued that Ramirez attacked him.

Colling was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury, but resigned from his position at the sheriff’s department in 2021 after almost nine years with the department. He is a Laramie native and his father is a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper.

Colling had previously shot and killed a 15-year-old boy while working as a police officer in Las Vegas, a shooting that led to a lengthy lawsuit. He was later fired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for an alleged assault of a videographer trying to film police work. 

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Laramie Restaurant Prepares For Premiere of ‘Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives’ Episode

in News/Good news

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A popular Laramie restaurant is preparing for its time in the spotlight with its appearance Friday in a segment of the Food Network series “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

The Crowbar and Grill will be one three restaurants featured in Friday’s episode, titled “From Italian to Asian,” and host Guy Fieri will highlight the restaurant’s bulgogi (Asian seasoned steak) fries and Billhook pizza.

The series focuses on “greasy spoon” restaurants which typically serve comfort food-style dishes. Other restaurants to be featured Friday’s episode are in New Mexico and Alaska.

On the night of the show, the restaurant will project the episode onto one of its walls.

Restaurant General Manager Emily Madden told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday that production scouts from Food Network reached out to the bar around Thanksgiving, letting staff know the show was interested in filming there.

“When they got ahold of us, it was a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, I think everyone was pretty exhausted by that point,” she said. “Just getting the call to say that we were considered, and then after we talked to producers about the recipes and finally getting the call or email to say it was happening, it was emotional. It was just some really good news when things were not so great.”

Crowbar is the third Laramie restaurant to be featured on the show in recent weeks. Sweet Melissa’s, a vegetarian restaurant, and Prairie Rose, a breakfast and lunch spot, have already been featured. At least two more Laramie restaurants are slated to appear on the show in coming weeks.

Madden said in December, Fieri came to the city and filmed at a handful of restaurants over a two-day period. She complimented both the host and the production crew for their friendliness and professional attitudes during the couple of hours it took to film the segment.

“The show has been on for 15 years, and some of the people who work on it have been there the whole time,” she said. “They understood what it was like to work with people in a restaurant setting. It was such an interesting case of seeing the sausage getting made, basically.”

In the two weeks since the air date was announced for Crowbar’s episode, Madden said the restaurant has seen an uptick in customers, a trend she expects to see continuing into the summer, which is normally a busy period for the business anyway.

“There are some people who travel just to go to the places featured on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,'” she said. “Plus, we get tourists coming through, people visiting the college and I think more people will be out traveling in general this summer.”

Laramie is not the first Wyoming city featured on “DDD.” A few restaurants in Jackson have also appeared in segments.

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Laramie Cop Who Shot, Killed Man In 2018 Resigns From Sheriff’s Office

in News

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A sheriff’s officer in Laramie who shot and killed a Laramie resident in 2018 has resigned from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, effective Wednesday.

Albany County Sheriff Aaron Applehans confirmed the resignation of Officer Derek Colling in comments to Cowboy State Daily, but couldn’t provide information as to the reason because state law prohibits him from discussing personnel issues.

Applehans was unsure of whether Colling planned to seek work elsewhere as a law enforcement officer.

Colling, a corporal with the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, shot and killed Robbie Ramirez during an altercation that occurred after a traffic stop in November 2018. He was cleared of wrongdoing in the incident by a grand jury.

Colling shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in 2009 while working as a police officer in Las Vegas, a shooting that led to a lengthy lawsuit. He was fired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in 2011 for an alleged assault of a videographer trying to film police work, according to WyoFile.

Ramirez’s mother Debra Hinkel has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office following the death of her son, calling it a wrongful death and referring to the grand jury’s decision in Robbie Ramirez’ shooting as a a miscarriage of justice.

Her lawyers have alleged that former Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley hired Colling when other law enforcement agencies wouldn’t. Colling is a Laramie native and his father is a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper.

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Albany County Extends Mask Mandate Until Jan. 4

in News/Coronavirus

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Albany County Public Health Officer is extending its mask mandate until Jan. 4, the office announced Tuesday morning.

The order was first enacted on Nov. 6 and has been extended at the request of county health officer Dr. Jean Allais. Wyoming Public Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist approved the extension.

This is the first example of a mask order being extended into the new year in any Wyoming counties.

There will be slight amendments to the order, such as requiring business employees to wear masks while working near each other, not just while working in public spaces.

The mask order will also now apply to children 12 and older.

The mandate will also be waived in situations where law enforcement officers request mask removal to aid in the identification of people.

“Continued high rates of transmission support a continued mask mandate in Albany County,” Allais said.

Albany County is seeing more than 30% of infection rates due to community spread. The University of Wyoming sent students home earlier than expected due to spikes in the county.

Mask orders have been implemented in numerous counties across Wyoming, although Gov. Mark Gordon has been hesitant to implement a statewide one. Gordon recently tested positive for the coronavirus and is recovering.

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Texas Family Searching For Missing Man Last Seen In Laramie

in News

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Texas family is searching for a missing mentally disabled man who was last seen in Laramie in early August.

According to NBC News, 37-year-old Roy Anderson Jr. was last seen at the Laramie Regional Airport by an employee on Aug. 4, which is also the last day anyone in his family had any contact with him.

Anderson, of Harker Heights, Texas, regularly takes bus trips to various areas, primarily Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where many of his family members live.

Lakeisha Anderson, the man’s sister, told NBC she is not sure why her brother was in the airport, since he normally travels by bus.

“We’re not sure why he was at the airport,” she said. “He usually just takes a bus, so we’re not sure what prompted him to just fly to Wyoming. We don’t even know anyone there.”

Lakeisha has a Twitter account where she is providing updates regarding her brother’s case. She also has a hashtag, #FindRoyJr, for people to follow.

Anderson’s suitcase was left unclaimed at the Laramie airport and was sent back to his family in Texas. Most of his personal effects were still in the suitcase, but not his wallet or cell phone.

His phone charger, however, was in the bag. The phone has apparently been turned off since he disappeared.

Anderson’s family has worked with his bank to track his movements and they determined his bank account was accessed on Aug. 9 in Denver.

Lakeisha Anderson told NBC that the Denver Police Department is working to obtain security footage to find out if the transaction was made by Roy.

There is no more money in his account, though.

“We’re just waiting at this point,” Lakeisha Anderson said. “It’s just been so long since we’ve heard from him and it doesn’t make sense. He would’ve found a way to contact us by now.”

The family is especially concerned because Roy needs medication for both diabetes and for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers after having served as a contract worker in Afghanistan.

Roy Anderson’s mother, Brenda Anderson, told NBC that her son likes reading books about other states and travels to them on a whim. She thinks that may be why he was in Wyoming.

“I feel like he read about Wyoming and just wanted to go visit,” Brenda Anderson said. “But it’s been a month and there’s no sign of him and he hasn’t even tried to contact us. He would at least be in touch with me, his brother or his best friend. But nothing. That’s what worries us.”

Anyone who might have seen Roy Anderson is encouraged to contact the Laramie Police Department at 307-721-2526.

He is described as being around 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing between 250 and 260 pounds. He could have more facial hair than is seen in this picture, since he hasn’t had access to money for a haircut and shave.

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Laramie Lions Club holds first ice fishing derby of the new year

in Travel
Laramie Ice Fishing
A young winner of the Laramie Plains Lions Club Ice Fishing Derby in 2015. Adults and youth — those under the age of 14 — will wet their lines this weekend in the 27th annual derby, to be held at Laramie’s Lake Hattie. (Courtesy photo)

For the angler who likes to catch his or her fish through the ice, this weekend will offer up the first opportunity of the new year to compete in an ice fishing derby.

The Laramie Plains Lions Club Ice Fishing Derby, running from Saturday through Sunday afternoon, will see anglers on Laramie’s Lake Hattie wet their lines for a shot at more than $3,500 in prize money.

The derby, now in its 27th year, has traditionally been held in early January, said Lewis Lyon, chairman of the derby for the Lions Club.

“We try to start the year’s ice fishing season and I think Saratoga follows us by a couple of weeks,” he said.

The event  usually draws from 200 to 250 adults and 20 to 25 youths — under the age of 14 — who compete for cash prizes for the largest fish caught. In addition, if someone catches a fish that has been specially tagged and returned to the lake, he or she will win $2,000, Lyon said.

This is the third year for the specially tagged fish and in past years, the prize has gone unclaimed, he added.

The adult who catches the largest fish, as determined in measures of length, girth and weight, will receive $1,500. Cash prizes will also go to those who catch the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-largest fish. A $25 prize will go to the person bringing in the smallest fish.

In youth competition, the angler bringing in the largest fish will win $150. Prizes will also be awarded for the second-, third- and fourth-largest fish, as well as for the smallest fish — again, $25.

While fishing through ice in frigid weather might not sound comfortable to some, Lyon said most of the ice fishermen are well prepared for the winter conditions.

“I like to stand up by the fire and get warm, but there’s people who like to stand out there on the ice,” he said. “You look at some of the huts that they have, they’ve got heaters in them, they’re pretty comfortable.”

Lyon predicted that up to two-thirds of those competing will be return visitors to the derby.

Fishing begins at 8 a.m. Saturday and ends at 4 p.m., resuming at 8 a.m. Sunday and ending at 2 p.m., when the derby closes.

The winners of the derby will be announced about 20 minutes after the fishing ends, Lyon said.

“We shut down at 2 p.m. and give them 20 minutes to get in off of the ice in case somebody caught one right at 2 p.m.,” he said.

The admission fee for the derby is $35 for adults and $5 for children and money raised during the event will be used to support one of the Lions Club’s several charities, which include providing assistance to those who need glasses or eye examinations, support for the Allen H. Stewart Lions Camp near Casper and support for the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank in Colorado.

For more information on the derby, visit the Lions Club’s website.

Brookings Institution eyes Laramie’s downtown success

in Economic development/News
Laramie downtown
Photo by Matt Idler

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Laramie is one of three cities across the nation selected by the Brookings Institution for a year-long study to catalog all the factors involved in creating a vital downtown shopping area.

“It feels like winning an Oscar,” said Trey Sherwood, the Laramie Main Street Alliance executive director. “It’s a huge honor for us to even be considered by somebody like Brookings to analyze the breadth of our work.”

Wheeling, West Virginia, and Emporia, Kansas, were also selected by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings to participate in the study, which is being conducted by the Brookings Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking and the National Main Street Center.

While many small and rural communities have successfully created an environment that is both fertile for entrepreneurs and engaging for residents, little has been done to comprehensively catalog and share those communities’ strategies for others to replicate, according to a Brookings news release. 

“The Transformative Placemaking Case Studies will help fill this gap by evaluating the impact of place-based entrepreneurship strategies on key outcomes, highlighting several successful examples and presenting replicable practices and lessonslearned for the field,” the release states.

The study is slated to involve:

  • Interviews, focus groups, and surveys with stakeholders and residents; 
  • Observations of relevant programming and public spaces; 
  • Quantitative analysis of indicators related to economic, physical, social and civic outcomes, and 
  • The development and dissemination of a brief that will outline lessons learned and promising practices for the field.

Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan said the announcement came as a surprise, but confirms the city is on the right track with the development of its downtown.

“I think it’s really exciting to see Wyoming selected,” Jordan said. “And it’s affirming, not just for city government, but to see all our partners and our collaborative work recognized.”

In the past decade, she said the city and its economic development partners such as Laramie Main Street Alliance and Laramie Chamber Business Alliance have worked on a series of projects to encourage entrepreneurs to locate in Laramie. Those included work to secure funding for projects involving companies such as University of Wyoming startup Bright Agrotech LLC, munitions manufacturer Tungsten Parts Wyoming and engineering firm Trihydro Corporation.

“We have been successful in pulling down about $30 million in grants for about 10 economic development projects,” Jordan added.

In January, the city could adopt a new economic development plan, which would emphasize continued investments in place-making throughout the community, she said.

Sherwood’s team is slated to work with the Brookings researchers throughout the study, which could kick off with an on-site visit in March, Sherwood said.

“They were really hoping to come out in January,” she explained. “But getting to and around Laramie in January can be challenging to say the least.”

For the Laramie Main Street Alliance, Sherwood said the study presents an opportunity to review past strategies.

“It’s very rare that an organization like ours is asked to pause and reflect,” she explained. “In the last 10 years alone, we’ve documented 296 renovation projects downtown valued at about $11.6 million, five new construction projects valued at $3 million, 38 public improvements valued at $4.5 million, 104 net new businesses and 509 net new jobs.”

The successes only tell half the story, and Sherwood said she hopes the study will help her organization see the big picture.

“It’s great to see what’s working,” she explained. “But, I think understanding what hasn’t worked as well is key to working toward an even better future.”

Wyoming’s Infamous Icy Interstate Inspires Book, Innovation and Preparation

in News

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

The Lincoln Monument towers over Interstate 80 at the summit rest area just outside of Laramie. It’s the highest point along the 4,666-mile interstate at 8,640 feet. 

From the summit, winter driving conditions go downhill either way you you travel in the state. To the west, the stretch wreaks so much havoc it has gained national notoriety since the road opened. To the east, the summit rises and twists to Vedauwoo and beyond. Those traveling near the monument know to tread the area carefully. 

West of the summit, the Laramie to Walcott Junction interstate stretch opened in 1967. The selected 120-mile route went against the better judgement of area residents to appease the federal engineers who wanted to shave 19 miles off of the trip, according to historian John Waggener. 

Winter weather conditions closed the road only four days after opening, earning the highway the nickname Waggener adopted for his book on Interstate 80 — the “Snow Chi Minh Trail.” The book documents the history of the interstate, along with its reputation for dangerous winter travel.

Waggener knew the infamous interstate’s reputation and wanted to know the deeper story beneath the asphalt. Through his research he learned that Wyoming locals wanted the interstate to follow existing U.S. Highway 30, but that didn’t align with national interests. 

“In 1959, there was a debate on the Senate floor in Washington,” Waggener said. “The I-80 routing debate got so heated, it called for a special hearing.” 

Locals fought to have the interstate placed near Highway 30. They knew the notorious weather of the region would be problematic. The wind that blows across the present highway between Laramie and Walcott Junction is compressed and strong. It collects snow and gains speed as it funnels through the mountains. 

“The air moves from West to East — the path of least resistance,” Waggener said. “It moves fast. The winds clock over 100 mph. Eighty to 100 mph is not uncommon in that area.”  

That wind and snow create the perfect recipe for disaster. 

Wyoming Department of Transportation figures show 876 crashes caused by winter weather conditions occurred on the interstate in 2013 and 881 occurred in 2014. This year’s count is set at is at 667, but the year isn’t done yet.

On the east side of the pass, the weather also creates drama.

Barbara Sandick is an adjunct instructor at the University of Wyoming. She moved to region after living in the San Francisco Bay area. Commutes were, and still are, a way of life for her. Back in California, she would spend hours in gridlock. Now she can spend up to several hours just getting to Laramie on the winter weather susceptible interstate.

As a student and an instructor, she has commuted from Cheyenne to Laramie for about six years. During that time, she has seen the weather go from bad to unbearable on several occasions.

As dynamic as the stretch of road can be, she can sum it up pretty quickly.

“It’s treacherous,” she said.

Although the years have left her with countless incidents of white-knuckle driving conditions, she said the roads appear safer than when she first started commuting.

“The (Wyoming) Highway Patrol has gotten a lot better at closing the highway,” she said.

Patrol Lt. Kyle McKay has patrolled between Cheyenne and Laramie for about 15 years. Over the years, he has seen winter-related crash numbers decline.

When the roads are deemed impassable, the closures begin. Frequently, these highway condition reports come from patrol cars patrolling the interstates. 

McKay said any combination of conditions, including road surface temperatures, high winds, low visibility and the types of snow, play into the decision-making process. McKay said it isn’t a decision that is made lightly.

“We understand the impact of commercial business and the economic impact of road closures,” he said. 

He added that even though the public needs to travel from point A to point B, the patrol must ultimately consider the safety of the travelers first and foremost.

McKay said many drivers arriving at a closed interstate gate can be confused how the road would be closed when sometimes the weather appears nice at their location. He said there could be a couple of factors at play.

“A person is at exit 357 with a calm sunny day, but 30 miles down the road, the conditions can be bad,” he said.  

Often, the person may not realize the severity of the situation. In some instances, crashes may block the entire road. This can create safety issues for the officials responding to the crash and motorists. The conditions may not be apparent to those stuck on the other side of the gates.

One of the most dangerous areas to drive along I-80 is on bridges.

“Early winter, the mixture of mist and fog creates black ice,” McKay said. “We get a lot of bridge deck crashes.”

McKay said bridges don’t have the earth directly beneath them, which allows them to cool faster than normal roadways. The Wyoming Transportation Department tries to monitor those conditions with gauges that can register the surface temperature of the interstate.

In addition to taking steps such as closing highways and using tools such as road temperatures gauges, there is another device that can help reduce crashes, McKay said —variable speed limit signs.

“I’ve seen a huge reduction in crashes because of the variable speed limit signs,” McKay said.

He cites the simplicity of physics for the effectiveness.

“The slower you are going, the less of an impact there will be,” he said.

Variable speeds limit signs, traffic alert signs stretching over the highway and a special kind of snow fences called “Wyoming Snow Fences,” were all created in the state to improve safety on Interstate 80, said Waggener.

“They were all developed on this stretch of road,” Waggener said.

These innovations were developed in part to remind people to slow down in bad weather. Experienced drivers recommend paying attention. 

“I know, from witnessing so many accidents, you have to drive slow and be situationally aware,” Sandick said.

During the winter, she has seen vehicles involved in accidents line the edge of the snow-packed interstate. Some days, the number seems to just keep growing.

“I would say I’ve seen probably over 20 (in one drive),” she said. 

And that is why she makes sure she drives prepared.

Sandick has learned to pack her pickup with all the essentials. Tow ropes, first aid kits, snowshoes, gloves, shovels, sleeping bags etc. If it can make a difference between life and death, she has it packed and ready to go.

Lt. McKay recommends the essentials: food, water, fuel and proper clothing. He said travelers need to stay in their vehicles and keep warm if they find themselves stranded on the highway. Use the fuel sparingly, and keep the car ventilated. 

Despite all his preparation, McKay also said he has learned to expect the unexpected. He recommends other motorists do the same. 

Charter schools achieve big scores with small classes

in News/Education
Charter School

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A focused curriculum, targeted tutoring and behavioral adjustments all contribute to the above-average statewide education testing scores posted by two Wyoming charter schools, according to their officials.

Of the four charter schools listed in the Wyoming Test of Proficiency and Progress (TOPP), two scored far above the state proficiency rate in all categories for the 2018-2019 school year.

The TOPP test is a state-mandated measure of proficiency for public school grades three through 10 in the areas of math, English and science.

Snowy Range Academy, of Laramie, and PODER Academy, of Cheyenne, topped the charts with some of the highest scores and participation rates in the state.

“(TOPP testing) is really like the Super Bowl for us at the end of the year,” PODER Chief Operations Officer Nick Avila said.  “It’s a team effort, and it reflects on the school.”

While some of his educators disagree with tests as a measure of student learning, Avila said everyone at PODER recognizes the importance of TOPP testing and works toward helping their students succeed.

“It’s not really how smart you are, but how well you can take tests,” Avila explained. “We tackle the methodology of good test taking head on.”

It all begins with attitude.

“There’s a few things we do to achieve success with our students: No. 1 is we focus on behavior from the start,” Avila said. “We try to get the kids to engage, to listen, to increase attention span.”

Getting kids to sit still and study may be the obvious approach to improving classroom learning, but PODER doesn’t stop at the classroom.

“The other main component is the parents,” Avila said. “Typically when you have a struggling student, it’s usually something coming from the home.”

As problems are identified with each student, parents are called in to help discover the best solutions. This can mean a parent has to change their work-week plans or even take time off, which ruffles some feathers, but Avila said they are reminded that attending PODER is a choice.

“Our school is not going to work for every student — that’s just a reality,” he said. “But having options out there is really important.”

After aggregating all the state’s TOPP scores, the state’s average proficiency levels are between 40 percent to 60 percent, with about 7,000 students tested.

PODER’s average TOPP score was 77 percent and its lowest was 67 percent for fourth grade English, well above the state’s 49 percent in the same category. PODER’s highest score was 92 percent for fifth grade math, compared to the state’s 55 percent.  

PODER was founded in 2012 and originally offered course instruction for kindergarten through ninth grade. In 2016, the academy responded to parent requests for additional schooling by adding a secondary academy, which serves students through 12th grade. Approximately 300 students attend the school with a near equal split between the elementary and secondary courses.

About 40 miles east on Interstate 80, the Snowy Range Academy, founded in 2001, has about 235 students enrolled and instructs grades kindergarten through eighth. 

Snowy Range Principal John Cowper said the school’s focus on teaching without the social events he said are present in many public curriculums helped Snowy Range top the TOPP tests.

“We do not spend a lot of time with activities in our school that are not academically oriented,” Cowper explained. “Halloween parties, Valentine’s parties, Christmas parties — they don’t exist. We believe in all that, and we celebrate it outside of school. But, school is not the time to take away from instruction in order to do that.”

Awarded a Blue Ribbon for High Performance by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, Snowy Range has been recognized for its output of high achievers and celebrates that success, Cowper said, but now, the school is changing its focus.

“This last year we were shooting for growth in our students,” he said. “We did see slight growth, but not what we were shooting for, so we will try harder next year.”

Snowy Range defines growth as the difference between individual students’ test scores year to year.

“From the educator end, we have to really make sure we are identifying those students who are low performers and triangulating their performances,” Cowper said. “Then, we create individual plans for those students.”

Plans can include learning interventions during the school day, after-school tutoring and schooling during winter and summer breaks.

When it comes time for TOPP testing, Cowper said he hands out mints to all the students and gives the school a big pep talk. But at the end of the day, the test is not treated as the be-all, end-all indicator of student success. 

“We recognize these test scores are a one-day snapshot in a child’s life,” Cowper said. “It may be their best day or it may not. So, it’s hard to put a lot of emphasis on the test results.”

Snowy Range’s average TOPP score was 83 percent, with its lowest score being 71 percent in fourth grade English. And its highest was 90 percent, which it achieved in third grade math, seventh grade math, eighth grade math and eighth grade English.

Both Snowy Range and Poder reported 100 percent participation in the TOPP testing, higher than many public schools in their areas with larger student populations.

“Unless we have an exemption from the state, we must find a time to test that child,” Cowper said. “We don’t stop until we have every child on the list tested.”

With fewer students than other public schools in their communities, the charter schools also had smaller test pools. Snowy Range’s smallest test pool was six to nine students for seventh grade English. It’s largest pool was 20 to 29 students for many of its elementary level categories. 

PODER’s smallest pool was also six to nine for all categories tested on the tenth grade level, and its largest was 30 to 39 for the third grade categories.

Looking forward, Avila said PODER’s model is working, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change.

“We set our target high, and we achieved that,” he said. “But every year is different for us. If we start seeing our scores slide over time, we’ll reevaluate our approach to the teaching model.”

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