Virtual education: Powell Middle School begins offering online classes for homeschoolers


Local students can now take Powell Middle School classes from their bedrooms, kitchens or wherever they have an internet connection.

The middle school recently launched virtual classes for Powell kids who are homeschooled, traveling abroad, homebound or out of school for various reasons.

“Really, who we’re trying to reach is whoever can benefit,” said Jason Sleep, principal of Powell Middle School.

Sleep said conversations about virtual education first started about eight years ago when students received their own electronic devices through Park County School District No. 1 — opening up educational possibilities not just inside the building, but outside as well.

The question came up, especially for students who were unable to be in class due to sickness or other reasons: How can the middle school still deliver education to them?

“That has been in our minds for a while,” Sleep said.

Two years ago, when Powell Middle School students and staff started using Canvas — an online learning management system — the possibility of virtual courses “started to become a real thing,” Sleep said.

Canvas is a website where students access class materials, assignments, grades and other content. It also allows interaction between teachers, students and parents.

“It’s kind of everything in one: It’s our grade book; it’s the way we communicate with parents; it’s the way we get content to our students, and then students communicate back,” said Zac Opps, an instructional facilitator at the middle school.

Canvas is used by students and staff in the Powell Middle School building, but it also provides a route for delivering virtual classes to students at home.

Powell Middle School received a roughly $72,000 distance education grant through the state this year to develop online courses for middle school-aged students in the Powell community.

“The idea is that we can move some of the courses we offer here at school to more of an online platform,” Sleep said.

Students in virtual classes must still meet the same standards and expectations, he said.

Parents who homeschool can use the middle school’s virtual classes to supplement what they already do, he said.

Sleep said parents who choose to homeschool, “I think are always for the right reasons.”

“I know they’re fiercely independent,” he said. “We do not want to interrupt that at all. We just want to show that, if there’s a way that we can supplement something they’re already doing, that it’s available.”

The only cost for families is the insurance for the school-issued laptop.

Students who complete virtual classes are counted in Powell Middle School’s average daily membership (ADM). The state uses ADM to calculate funds for K-12 schools, so “we do get funding for students that enroll and successfully complete the classes,” Sleep said.

Sleep said he’s excited that the model is sustainable.

“Very rarely do you get a win-win like that,” Sleep said.

Currently, Powell is the only middle school in Wyoming that has been awarded a distance education grant; most of the grant recipients are high schools.

“But we feel like middle school is kind of an under-served population,” he said.

This fall, Powell Middle School is piloting several virtual education courses, including sixth-grade math, sixth-grade physical science, eighth-grade math, Spanish, digital citizenship/research and computer science and coding. Next spring, seventh-grade math and middle school health will be added to the lineup. Additional courses are planned for next fall.

“A student wouldn’t enroll full time virtually, but we have some core and elective or exploratory courses that students can register for,” Opps said.

While coursework is online, it’s not like students are on their own.

“We’re not just going to enroll a kid and say, ‘Good luck, we’ll talk to you at the end of the semester,’” Opps said.

Web-conferencing allows teachers to meet with students on a regular basis.

“Every week, teachers will check in with students on their progress. Parents can be part of those meetings,” Opps said.

Parents also can access their child’s course online.

“... while our teachers are going to be in charge of the assessment and those kind of things, we really anticipate parents being highly involved in that process as well, so they’ll have access to those materials, right alongside their son or daughter,” Opps said, who will help provide support and technical assistance for families.

Sleep said Powell Middle School plans to apply for the distance education grant again to help fund development of more virtual classes, and they want to hear from the community.

“That’s where we need input from Powell parents and students — what courses do you need?” Sleep said. “And then we can focus our attention on developing those courses.”

Even if your child is a third- or fourth-grader, the middle school wants input on what your family’s needs may be, so “we can get something in the works,” Sleep said.

Several Powell High School staff members have created online curriculum through Canvas as well, especially at the freshman level, said Jim Kuhn, PHS principal. PHS students have taken online courses during summer school for credit recovery.

“We’ll continue to work on developing these classes,” Kuhn told the school board during its meeting last month.

Part of what sets Powell’s virtual classes apart from others, like Wyoming Connections Academy or Florida Virtual, is that students live in the same community as their teachers, Sleep said.

Students taking virtual classes also may choose to participate in activities at Powell Middle School, such as science labs, field trips or the energy expo.

“If at some point, we open this up to the state, we’re not going to offer that as an option for kids in Cody, Casper — it just can’t happen,” Sleep said. “That’s where virtual courses sometimes come up short, because they don’t have that face-to-face interaction.”

As Powell Middle School teachers develop the virtual classes, the process helps them make their face-to-face instruction more efficient, Opps said.

“I think that’s an exciting part of this, because you see teachers going through this and they have to think differently,” Sleep added. “It helps our classroom kids.”

If interested in enrolling your child in Powell Middle School’s virtual classes, contact Sleep or Opps at the school, 764-6185.