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Doug Clark: Online education program lets a cowgirl be a cowgirl

Let me tell you a story about readin’, writin’, ridin’ and ropin’.

The tale is as much about the modern cyber age we live in. Because of that, public school can be tailor-made for even online cowgirls like Evelyn Picking.

Evelyn is 13. She lives on 100 acres of cowboy country, fine rolling ranchland just outside of Omak, Washington.

She’s also part of a long line of ropers and rodeo wranglers. Leo Moomaw, for example, Evelyn’s great-grandfather, established his homestead here, breeding and raising quality stock for the professional rodeo circuit.

Moomaw was also one of the founders of the famed annual Omak Stampede.

“I’ve been riding before I walked,” Evelyn tells me. “I wasn’t born in a barn, but I got there fast.”

I caught up with this delightful kid on a recent sunny day. By the time I made the tedious drive from Spokane to Wilbur to Grand Coulee Dam (with two long delays for roadwork that made me think I was still stuck back in Spokane) to Omak, Evelyn was already holding court in a pasture with her best equine pals: Seahawk, Grey Wolf and Sky.

Horses are far more intelligent than most people give them credit for, says Evelyn of the immaculately groomed All American Quarter Horses. “They’re smart,” she adds. “Almost smarter than you.”

No argument there. The pre-college exam I took recommended I’d be better off serving humanity as a plumber.

But from my limited experiences, horses are always skittish and nervous creatures.

Not these animals. They all seemed perfectly at ease around even a strange, IQ-impaired human, letting me scratch their ears and stroke their long, smooth necks.

It was obvious that Evelyn’s constant care and affection had become a part of them.

But while at home on a range, Evelyn struggled in the traditional classrooms of public school, says Peggy Nelson, the girl’s grandmother, caregiver and learning coach.

Evelyn was introverted and lacking in confidence. Her grades suffered. Something had to be done.

The answer came last October, when Evelyn started taking her classes through the Washington Virtual Academies (or WAVA).

An online charter K-12 program, WAVA lets students take classes over the internet. One of dozens of similar programs, WAVA, which is free because it counts as public education, is monitored by the Digital Learning Department that was created in 2009.

The DLD oversees “a statewide approval process for online learning providers in Washington.”

WAVA currently works with 3,800 students.

In short, Evelyn joined a growing number of students who are not going into the traditional classrooms of a building to go to school.

Programs like WAVA aren’t for everyone. Evelyn’s older brother, Conner, tried it without success.

Evelyn, however, seemed ready for such a change, and getting good grades is just part of her transformation. Not long ago Evelyn received a student of the month award from one of her teachers.

“The confidence that this program has given her is amazing,” says Peggy. “No scolding. No put-downs. Evelyn has gone from a very shy sixth-grader to an impressive young lady that I’m proud of.

“She’s going places.”

Try as I might, I can’t fit the “shy” word into what I’m seeing. The Evelyn in front of me is a gregarious wisecracker who proudly shows me some of her handmade jewelry and who leads me on a tour, introducing me to the dogs and rabbits and chickens and …

“I have a goat up the road, Daisy,” she says as we exit the barn and head for the house.

This is where Peggy and her husband, Bob, live. Both are former educators, a real benefit when it comes to overseeing Evelyn’s online studies.

The cozy home is filled with treasured rodeo-related photographs. My favorite is one of old Moomaw himself, riding a bucking bronc, circa 1915.

Evelyn takes a moment to demonstrate the rodeo art of goat tying, minus the goat. Sitting in a chair with one leg crossed over the other, she slaps a piece of rope over her extended boot and ties it in a split-second.

That, she says, is how you secure the goat after you’ve first jumped off your horse and wrestled said critter to the ground.

If you’re any good, she explains, the entire process can be completed in 7 or 8 seconds.

Or 7 or 8 weeks if you break a hip.

An average WAVA day begins about 7:30 a.m., she says, and can end at 5 p.m. or maybe an hour later.

Her seventh-grade courses are from an established curriculum, consisting of math, science, English language arts and history.

She earns her PE credit for all the physical work she does, like catching rabbits when they escape their cages, working on her barrel racing skills and riding the hills around her home.

There are regular chats with teachers. And due to the independent nature of WAVA, Evelyn can shape her schedule to fit her needs.

Peggy says that Evelyn, being a descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribe, often tells “the rest of the story” through her history and language arts assignments.

“Taking charge of your own learning,” Peggy calls this, crediting WAVA for being able to recognize and adapt to the many different styles of acquiring knowledge.

“That’s the heart of a program like this. They make it personal. It’s always positive. Every step is forward.”

Funny how things change. Years ago I wrote a column advocating for a competitive ice skater who was being kept from graduating high school because she hadn’t completed a PE credit.

WAVA probably would have been as good a fit for such an athlete as it is for an online cowgirl.

“I’m lucky,” Evelyn tells me. “I always think about what would happen if I was not born into this family.

“I don’t really leave home, I just go outside to my other classroom.”

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