CHEYENNE – Wyoming’s largest school district has hired Lana Haffner to serve as the inaugural principal of Cheyenne Virtual School, an entirely online K-12 district-run school set to open this fall.
“My vision is to continue to provide a caring, quality and relatable learning format,” said Haffner, whose job offer, which comes with an annual salary of $97,500, is contingent on Laramie County School District 1’s verification of her transcripts. “It’s for those that want alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar schooling and those who may need virtual for health concerns. We can offer a virtual learning experience at the district level to serve our students where they live.”
The state offers an online learning program, but Cheyenne Virtual School will operate under the purview of LCSD1. District officials have previously stated that a lot of the money for Haffner’s position and other virtual school operations will come from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding.
The district has already received about $4.5 million. It’s also submitted a request with Gov. Mark Gordon’s office for $11,391,459 more to cover technology-related needs, though that has not yet been awarded.
Haffner, who worked as a counselor at Henderson Elementary for the past two years, has an extensive background in virtual education.
“We felt like because of her experience, she might be able to guide questions parents might have about virtual learning,” said John Weigel, LCSD1’s assistant superintendent of human resources, who noted that the district had seen a need for a virtual school option prior to the pandemic, but that school closures last spring amplified that need.
In addition to her professional experience, Haffner’s personality made her the right person to meet this moment, he said. “She is very engaging and positive, but direct enough to explain how this works.”
Before moving to Cheyenne with her family in 2018, Haffner oversaw the operations of another virtual school in Clay County, Florida, for several years. Before that, Haffner, who holds two master’s degrees in educational counseling and leadership, worked as school counselor and had frequent interactions with virtual school students in Florida. There, legislators have been pushing for expanded online learning options – and other traditional public school alternatives – for years.
“I really enjoy legal and ethical policy changes. I felt like that was an area I excelled at – understanding and interpreting legislation and doing what is best for our district and school community,” said Haffner, who added that making the move to a virtual school setting in Florida “just seemed like a natural fit” back in 2011.
Haffner said the biggest challenge of online learning is building interpersonal relationships with students, which was also a resounding concern of parents, students and teachers during Cheyenne’s unexpected school shutdown.
“When you’re at a brick-and-mortar school, you see students every day, face-to-face. In an online school, you have to work at building those relationships, but it’s something that can be done very easily. You just have to learn how to communicate differently,” she said.
Haffner said one of the biggest benefits of online learning is providing more learning options to students who learn through a variety of formats. Another added benefit, Haffner said, is reduced instances of bullying – which is a documented problem within LCSD1.
“That was not something we faced. I think students who did not feel comfortable in traditional school turned to online options,” Haffner said.
Opening the virtual school
Haffner’s first big assignment as the new principal of Cheyenne Virtual School starts today, when she will field presentations from online curriculum and instruction vendors – and help select the right one for the school.
“We need to look at their learning management systems and how accessible it is to teachers, students and parents,” Haffner said about what she’s looking for in an online learning program. “We also need flexibility within a program. How can we make it work for Wyoming’s state standards, and make it match what our district is doing?”
The district plans to select a vendor by next week. Once that’s done, the district will have a clearer picture of exactly what long-term virtual learning will look like. From there, LCSD1 will start gauging student interest and assess its staffing needs.
The district has already put out an advertisement for an instructional coach, with an annual salary range of $48,420 to $80,928, who will help Haffner support teachers with classroom engagement and other online learning strategies.
As for the type of teachers the district is looking to hire for the virtual school, Weigel said some consideration will be given to educators with heightened health concerns, but that otherwise, “We want to look for teachers who will be engaging, quality teachers. … A great teacher will be great in person or virtual.”