Powell to launch virtual school

POWELL — Park County School District 1 is getting ahead of the curve when it comes to virtual schools. 

The district’s board of trustees voted Tuesday in its regular meeting to move ahead with the addition of a virtual school to serve students around the Big Horn Basin. 

The idea was floated at the January board meeting, and Jason Sleep, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the district, began the process of running down information to present to the board. Everyone involved already knew the district was losing students to online schools, and those losses impacted the federal funding the district receives. 

Sleep called other districts that have already launched in house virtual schools and asked many questions. 

“This is not just good for us,” he told the trustees. “It is critical to move ahead with it.” 

The virtual students have to be attached to a specific school, Superintendent Jay Curtis pointed out, and the plan is for elementary students to be attached to Parkside, which has the lowest student population and would benefit from an increase in its Title 1 funding by having more students “enrolled.” Middle school students would have to be attached to Powell Middle School, while high school students would be attached to the Shoshone Learning Center. 

The setup will allow students physically at the learning center to access classes they need that are also going out to online learners. 

“It will benefit our SLC students as well,” Curtis said. 

The virtual school would be for students in grades 2-12. Curtis said the district’s philosophy is that students younger than second grade need to be at a school in person.

The proposal asked for the flexibility to hire up to five fulltime equivalent teachers for the virtual school. 

The entire project is being funded through ESSER II funds. That program — Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II — was authorized in January as part of the CARES Act supplement passed at that time. It provides an additional $54.3 billion for schools, and Curtis said the district would be well within the program parameters to launch a virtual school using the funds. The dollars cannot be used for general school budgeting, only specified uses. 

“We have the funds to jump start this and do it right,” he said. The first year goal is to have 50 students. Ideally there would be 26 high school students and 12 each in elementary and middle school. The proposal commits the district to the program for two years, at which time it will be reassessed. 

If the program needs to fill all five teacher positions, it will cost $452,000 and at that level, Curtis explained it would be fully covered by the grant funding. Once the virtual school is up and running, the district is hopeful it will enroll enough students who were seeking online education elsewhere that the federal funds coming to the district will more than pay for the program; anything over the costs will benefit the district. 

The benefit to those virtual students is that they could also take elective classes such as music, welding or PE in person as space allows. They would also be eligible for dual enrollment and/ or concurrent classes at Northwest College, following the same guidelines as those applied to students at the brick and mortar facilities. 

The idea of a virtual school was examined in 2009, but the district did not have the infrastructure in place to start one at that time. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that now there are Chromebooks and internet hotspots available for any student who needs the equipment to learn virtually. 

Sleep explained to the board that time was already short to get the program going for the fall semester. Part of the pressure was to begin searching, interviewing and hiring teachers with the appropriate certifications. Hopes are to find some educators who have dual certifications, such as math and science. 

Curriculums will be both those developed in-house and used at the existing schools as well as vendor materials developed specifically for virtual learning. 

Another facet to launching a virtual school is that the remote learning option rolled out to deal with COVID fears, illnesses and quarantines will end next school year. Those students who find they learn better virtually, or whose families still have health concerns may choose to go virtual.

The downside, Curtis said, is that for many students, virtual learning is considered the last ditch effort to get that pupil to graduation. 

“If we have enough teachers they will be in regular contact with those students, keep them engaged and get them to graduation,” he said. 

Another time pressure is that as virtual schools are being launched nearby and across the state, Powell students have the option to utilize those venues instead. Some virtual schools are already set up to accommodate students from anywhere in the state, whereas the target for Park County District 1 is within the Big Horn Basin only. 

“Having only Big Horn Basin students for now, I think our reputation will draw some people in. We have a great system and people will want to be a part of it,” Curtis added. “So we have to ask ourselves, do we want to get in on the front end of this or on the back end?” 

The trustees agreed with the proposal. 

“I think its a heckuva great idea,” said trustee Greg Borcher. 

Board Chairman Trace Paul chimed in that he was ready to get the process underway. 

“If we need to hire, we have to start the search this month to get the best applicants,” he said. 

The other board members agreed, with everyone casting a vote in favor of launching the virtual school for the fall semester.