A look at Wyoming’s online public school

Online learning isn’t for everyone, but for some, it’s not only a great alternative but it’s also the best option to meet their learning needs, said Wyoming Connections Academy Principal Ben Kolb. Connections Academy is a tuition-free, virtual public school, serving students in grades K–12 throughout the state of Wyoming. The school gives students the flexibility to learn at home with a curriculum that meets rigorous state education standards.

Online student Josh McCracken and his grandmother Shelley McCracken log on to the Wyoming Connections Academy website where Josh can find a schedule of his classes and school work to be completed for the day.
Patti Carpenter photo

Wyoming Connections Academy is a program of Big Horn County School District No. 1, which is accredited by North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), an accrediting division of AdvancED. Wyoming Connections Academy’s teaching center is located in Cody.

District No. 1 in its partnership with the online school is pioneering the way to what some are calling a “blended model” for the future of education that will ultimately include part of the instruction conducted in an online classroom and part in a traditional brick and mortar school setting.

The exclusively online school, which started in Wyoming about five years ago, has seen its enrollment jump from 150 students two years ago to 300 students at the beginning of this school year, showing more growth than any other school managed by the district.

Unlike traditional “home-schooling,” the curriculum mirrors that of the traditional brick and mortar school and students earn credit toward graduation while they work at home.

Kolb said there isn’t really a “typical profile” of an online student. Some are very advanced, while some are just regular students. Some are disabled or find themselves homebound due to medical or other issues and find it convenient, while others without those issues just find they do better working at home.

“The students seem to show great improvement the longer they are in the program,” said Kolb. “The longer they are in the program the better they do on assessments (standardized tests) and academically.”

He said the school is quite rigorous and it’s definitely an adjustment for most because it requires more discipline and self-motivation on the part of the student than a traditional school setting. It also requires extensive family participation.

“It’s definitely not easy,” said Kolb. “It’s quite challenging.”

Kolb said he thinks it actually brings families together because it requires the direct participation of caregivers in the child’s education.

Students have real teachers, with regular classroom and office hours. Since many of the lessons are taught live and involve actual interaction with the teacher and other students, the instruction in that sense is similar to a traditional classroom. However, the similarity stops there. One advantage is that students can replay a recording of the class whenever necessary and can take as little or a much time as they need to master the material taught in the class. They are often able to preview a recording of the class prior to the live class to help reinforce their understanding of the material.

Adults at home have the advantage of overseeing the student’s progress on a daily basis and can literally monitor the work being done by their student as it is being done, with the click of a mouse.

Students are graded and tested just like in a regular classroom. They have homework assignments, and they are required to participate in regular assessment tests like ACT and PAWS at designated testing sites under the supervision of school staff.

Students are supplied with textbooks and their own laptop computer and are offered field trips. Monthly “meet and greet” sessions are also offered at local pizza parlors or other places where they can meet their teachers and classmates in person. They also have the option of participating in sports, extracurricular activities and even in classes at their local brick and mortar school.

The school is free, books are supplied and even the online connection is subsidized in some cases. It is part of the public school system on every level.

One advantage of operating an online school in a mostly rural and very unpopulated state like Wyoming is that students from all over the state can combine in one online classroom to take more exotic electives like foreign languages or other courses that may not have enough participants in a single school to warrant the cost of the class to the school’s district.

A teacher’s perspective

Michael Loveland is teaching a variety of science-related classes through Connections Academy for his second year. He said there was a learning curve for him at first as he learned the ins and outs of the online platform. He said the most difficult challenge for him was getting used to not seeing the student’s face.

He said he was already pretty tech-savvy, so that wasn’t much of a jump for him to learn what he needed to know to participate. He said it feels like there is much more one-on-one connection with his students than in a traditional classroom setting and he feels he gets to know them better.

“It seems like they can open up more without the fear of being judged by their peers,” said Loveland, who communicates with his students by phone, through email and during the live classes.

Loveland said he sometimes has up to 15 students in his class during a live lesson. As a science teacher, he uses virtual labs and in some ways he thinks it’s a safer and better way of teaching things like chemical reactions because everything is simulated and doesn’t have as many safety concerns.

Now that he has adapted to the online system, he said he really enjoys all it has to offer.

“I love this program,” he said. “It’s the best teaching experience I could have hoped for.”

One student’s experience

A distraction-free work environment, the ability to replay the lesson and a little extra time when necessary are all online student Josh McCracken, a Cowley resident, needed to go from near failing grades to soaring academically in his sophomore year of high school. McCracken started his third year as an online student this year and said he spends more time now than ever before on his studies and feels like he can really master the material as a result.

McCracken said he had trouble participating in a regular classroom because he found it to be distracting.

“I was worried more about my surroundings in a regular classroom,” said McCracken. “It takes me longer to take tests sometimes than they allow in a regular classroom.”

McCracken said he takes the same classes that are required of any high school student attending a brick and mortar school.

“I have math every day,” explained McCracken. “It just doesn’t matter when I do it. I do my math first thing because it’s a harder subject and I have more trouble with it in the afternoon.”

He said he can spend as much time as necessary to master the subject and if he still needs help, he can ask his teacher for a “live lesson” for more specific help with the material.

“You can pretty much ask your teacher to help you with anything and they will help you work on it,” said McCracken. “They can show us using a work pad online and we can write in our answers using a chat box. Sometimes it’s the whole class participating. Sometimes it’s just me.”

McCracken said he gets a live lesson at least once a week in each subject and he can take as long as he needs to on tests and other assignments. He can test more frequently if he wants to quiz himself while the information is fresh in his mind.

McCracken said he spends an average of eight hours per day on his schoolwork or more when necessary. As is common with many high school students his age, he said he’s finding his sophomore year to be a bit more challenging than his freshman year with more testing and more assignments to complete.

McCracken said it wasn’t easy at first and he had to work very hard on developing self-discipline. He started an online program in the second half of his seventh grade year but it took about a year before he felt he really adjusted to the discipline required to study through online classes.

He said he logs into school every day using a password. A box appears on the screen with a to-do list for the day.

“A box appears with the to-do list for the day and I can just click on whatever I want to do first that day,” said McCracken. “Then a screen comes up with the whole lesson.”

He completes him homework on screen and puts it in a drop box when he’s done. The teacher will make notations directly on the assignment for his review. He is able to either call or email the teacher if he has questions.

McCracken, who lives near Rocky Mountain High School, is currently taking an auto mechanics class at the nearby brick and mortar high school and participates in the FBLA. He has also participated in sports in the past like wrestling and football.

“At first I had to push him to get the work done, but now he’s really good and pretty much gets it all done on his own,” said his grandmother Shelley, who acts as his guardian and oversees his work at home. “It’s kind of like homeschooling but with the support of all of those teaching professionals. He can’t jump ahead. He has to finish the work lesson-by-lesson and test-by-test. The program won’t let him move ahead until he’s finished each step of his work.”

McCracken said he has gone from a C and sometimes D student to an A student by attending school online. He likes history and is taking honors history classes this year.

“This program has made all of the difference in the world for him,” said Shelley. “He is doing so much better now than he was in a regular school setting.”

Flexibility is key

Kolb emphasized that each student is different and chooses the online learning environment for different reasons. For example there is one student attending the school who at 12 years old is taking high school level honors classes.

“Flexibility is really the number one thing they seem to enjoy,” said Kolb.

Kolb said that student assessment scores are comparable to the rest of the state and the school provides intervention for those who need additional instruction in the same way a regular school would.

“We take a lot of pride in our team and we look for teachers who are caring and compassionate, know the content and who have strength in the tech area,” said Kolb.

The school has 11 teachers. Graduates have gone on to college and successful military careers.

“I feel very lucky to be involved in this new way of teaching,” said Kolb. “It’s fun to see the energy of both the students and teachers.”

Although excited to be in the forefront of a learning revolution, Kolb said he thinks a model that blends the strengths of both the online educational delivery system with the traditional brick and mortar setting to be the way of the future.

by Patti Carpenter