LUSK – Whenever Dr. Joe Heywood visits somewhere new, he’s sure to bring his students with him – virtually.
As Head of School at Wyoming Virtual Academy (WYVA), which is headquartered in Lusk and part of Niobrara County School District No. 1, Heywood aims to give his students an education that mirrors that of a traditional brick and mortar school, and then some. His work and that of his staff was recognized on Nov. 4 when the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) announced Heywood was a recipient of a Digital Learning Innovations award.
Heywood was recognized as a district leader, for his work in improving the social-emotional component of education for his 1,100 virtual learners through implementing clubs and virtual field trips, which he filmed and edited himself and posted online.
For Heywood, who came to WYVA three years ago, the award belongs to all of WYVA’s faculty, staff and administration.
“There are a lot of cool and innovative things going on inside the school,” Heywood said. “The award came to me by name, but all these teachers have been here so long and it’s the collective group putting on a cool program for the kids.”
WYVA’s enrollment and staff size has increased immensely since the onset of the pandemic. Heywood said they’ve doubled their teaching staff, from roughly 40 to 80, and have gone from 600 enrolled students to 1,100. He said they’ve temporarily closed enrollment, but will reopen it in December of January.
“We’re expecting another surge in the middle of the year,” he said. “We closed enrollment just because we couldn’t keep up with the hiring. I would imagine we’ll probably have another couple hundred students in mid year.”
Heywood said among Lusk residents, enrollment has increased from six students to 25 enrolled either full-time or in a concurrent course.
Heywood and his staff were primarily recognized for their co-curricular offerings, including Heywood’s virtual field trips and the school’s clubs and organizations.
Heywood said he estimates he’s filmed 100 videos throughout his time at WYVA. He mostly films locations in Wyoming, but he said he’s recorded visits to New York and the Grand Canyon.
During his Sunday commute across the state from his home in Bedford to WYVA’s office in Lusk, Heywood said he caught sight of a sign for Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Green River and made the quick decision to turn down the back road to film some signs and to teach students about wildlife.
He’s been to and filmed the Teton Range multiple times, both for a casual hike and the occasional ultramarathon.
“I just videoed along the way and the guy who I was running with was like, ‘what are you doing?’ and I said ‘making a field trip,’” he said with a laugh.
He once had his physical therapist film an appointment during which he used an anti-gravity machine. He’s also interviewed a neighbor who’s a local artist and a local TV news reporter who first interviewed him, along with an in-law who’s a beekeeper and members of the Cheyenne Police Department.
“I email them to 1,100 students and parents, and over the course of the week, I get all these responses,” Heywood said. “They say, ‘that was cool,’ or ‘I’ve been there,’ or ‘I want to go there’ or some connection they have to it.”
High School Principal Caroline Hickerson has worked at WYVA for eight years. She said Heywood’s award was “well deserved.”
“From the very beginning, he recognized that we needed to do more to build those connections within our school, those social emotional connections so that kids feel like they’re part of something,” Hickerson said. “They get to know the staff, they get to know him, they get to know our state, they get to know our communities.”
Hickerson said WYVA is unique in its smaller teacher to student ratios. For secondary school, their ratio is 1:150 divided into a few class sections, and for elementary school they aim for 1:25, which has been a challenge due to the school’s growing enrollment.
“If you’re one teacher and you have 400 students, you don’t get to know them at all,” Hickerson said. “You don’t know their families, their issues or concerns. When you know them, you can best support them, and that is one of our strengths.”
Middle School history teacher Caolon McNamee has taught at WYVA for 10 years. He said Heywood succeeds in connecting with his students in a way that principals and administrators in a brick and mortar school often don’t.
“Oftentimes with principals or heads of school, there’s that like man behind the curtain, Wizard of Oz feel there, and I really feel like he doesn’t want that to be the case,” McNamee said. “He wants students to feel like they know who he is and what his interests are and that they can connect with that. He does a lot of things that are not part of his job description”
In addition to online field trips, students also participate in a variety of clubs, from cooking to knitting to student council. Heywood said students spend their Friday afternoons in their respective clubs and organizations.
“They just hop on with the teachers and it’s just kind of a nice way to kind of unwind in a social setting online,” he said.
Heywood said he is happy to be part of WYVA after years of various educational experience, both with low-income students in Los Angeles and as a principal and eventually, state official overseeing charter schools.
“It’s a hidden gem here in the western United States, Wyoming Virtual Academy, because, even for a virtual school it’s run differently,” he said. “Usually, virtual programs are just sideshows for a district, and usually it’s meant to bring in extra funding. Wyoming Virtual has been run like a brick and mortar school from the get-go. All the staff is 100% dedicated to the school.”