Local families stand behind online school

Nathan Baker • Aug 21, 2013 at 10:30 PM

For the second year in a row, Tennessee’s only online public school scored at the bottom level on standardized tests, but school administrators and local parents insist the alternative curriculum provides quality education opportunities.

Tennessee Virtual Academy scored 1 out of 5, the lowest level, in math, reading and overall on state measures for growth on standardized tests for the 2012-13 school year. A Level 1 score means the school’s students are making substantially less progress in each subject than state-set standards for growth.

According to testing data released Monday by the state Department of Education, 81.3 percent of the online school’s students tested below proficiency in math and 62.6 percent tested below proficiency in reading and language arts.

Those figures show a decrease from the previous year in the proportion of students below proficiency in math, from 83.6 percent, and an increase in students scoring below proficiency in reading and language arts, up 1.9 percent from last year.

But in a Monday news release, TNVA school administrators pointed to growth from the previous year in certain areas, including among students in the lowest three quintiles and students with disabilities.

“We are pleased that our students showed gains from 11-12 to 12-13 school years,” the school’s principal, Josh Williams, wrote in an email Tuesday. “TNVA showed gains in 18 out of 20 categories, including meeting the (annual measurable objectives) for math in 3rd and 7th grade, and AMO gap closures for special education students in math and reading. Our administrative team and teachers are dedicated to continuing to meet the individual needs for each student and to further increase academic gains for this current school year.”

TNVA’s test scores, and its unfamiliar structure, have come under fire recently from politicians and citizens’ groups, who fear the millions of dollars of state funding paid to the school are being misspent.

The online K-8 school is administered by the Union County School District, but 96 percent of the funding from the state Basic Education Program, roughly $14 million for about 3,000 enrolled students, is paid to for-profit education company K12 Inc. through a contract for software, textbooks and other materials.

The Virginia-based corporation touts its services and products as alternatives to brick-and-mortar schools, which has led to contracts with thousands of school districts across the country.

TNVA’s poor performance last year led the state Legislature to pass enrollment limitations for virtual schools and set possible sanctions for unsatisfactory test results.

According to the new law, if an online school demonstrates student achievement growth at a level of “significantly below expectations” for any three consecutive years of the school’s operation, the state education commissioner could cap new enrollment or close the school.

Now with two straight years of poor scores, another bad round of tests this year won’t necessarily mean automatic closure for TNVA, state Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said, but it would fall under the definitions of the statute.

Union County School District Superintendent Jimmy Carter said Tuesday that he isn’t concerned by the possibility of repercussions.

“I’m not necessarily worried,” he said. “Our focus is trying to teach the students. If our improvement’s not significant enough, we will deal with that as it comes.”

One person who is worried by the possible closure of the online university is Jonesborough mother Kate Hagan.

Hagan decided a few years ago to teach her son at home when she realized he was developmentally above the sixth-grade curriculum of the local public school.

“He was not challenged by the level of work, and in middle school, for most part, the children stay in same classroom, and there’s no option to work at your own level,” she said. “One of things we found was, when he was working at own pace he finished in half the time.”

When she learned of TNVA and its non-traditional learning model, Hagan quickly enrolled her son. When her daughter reached middle school age, she was also enrolled in online courses.

“Both have been extremely successful,” Hagan said. “They work better when they aren’t all lumped together at the same level.”

Hagan’s son is now enrolled at Washington County’s David Crockett High School, in part because K12 Inc. doesn’t yet offer high school level courses and partly because students in higher grade levels are allowed to follow their interests.

But Hagan said her daughter, who is still enrolled in online classes, would be negatively impacted if the school was closed by the commissioner.

“We got a tremendous amount of children from low-performing schools and many with learning disabilities that were not being addressed in public schools,” she said of TNVA. “Some of those students were missing a lot of time and had fallen behind in their levels of achievement because of personal issues.

“If the state did better job of tracking individual students in life, they would see improvement, no doubt,” she said. “Until then, we’re going to be in a lower portion of state until those children with impediments to learning have opportunity to catch up.”

Current figures aren’t available showing how many of TNVA’s students are local, but Hagan said she routinely meets with other parents with students attending online courses.

“We frequently have discussions about the challenges facing the school, and about the test scores,” she said. “I know many of the students are excelling at their levels, and aren’t at all facing the problems the politicians are talking about.”

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