The subject of virtual schools has been in the news lately. During its most recent session, the state legislature changed a law to allow more Tennessee students, even those who are home-schooled and in private schools, to access Nashville’s virtual options.
And now, after recent state approval, Metro Nashville Public Schools has been granted Tennessee’s first K-12 virtual school.
For the time being, classes offered are only in the high school curriculum, but officials have said they hope to soon begin working through the lower grades to increase options so that more students will have access.
“Virtual learning offers students choices in an environment that meets their individual needs,” said Jay Steele, associate superintendent for high schools. “It is also preparing them for the college experience, since many universities require at least one virtual course for graduation.”
But getting a program like this off the ground is difficult, and at the outset it seems quite costly. So MNPS has done the logical thing, sowing seeds at home and importing until they grow.
The school system approached the state of Florida, which has one of the largest virtual schools in the country, and where Steele had spent time earlier in his career, to provide some of the systems and content for the MNPS Virtual School.
Through that arrangement, Nashville purchased access to 1,000 seats in the system for the fall semester. Florida will provide the course content for the first semester, along with the system through which students access the courses. Nashville will provide the teachers and academic support. Eventually, perhaps as early as the second semester of next year, MPNS hopes to develop some of its own courses, with the goal of self-sufficiency.
For now though, they’ll have to buy the seat access from Florida.
Those seats are occupied by students in a variety of circumstances, including some who take courses not offered by their own schools, others trying to free up their school-day schedule to take Advanced Placement classes that are offered virtually, and many other factors.
According to Dr. Michelle Wilcox, executive director for high schools — who, like Steele, spent time with Florida’s virtual system — “it provides flexibility and convenience while maintaining the rigor in academics.”
And the courses, according to Wilcox and Steele, are rigorous. Students approved by a guidance counselor to take the virtual courses can test the waters in a 10-day trial period. If the learning environment doesn’t suit them, they can return to their regular classes.
“Virtual classes are not necessarily for everyone,” Steele said. Still, his goal is to for every student graduating from the MNPS system to have taken at least one virtual course.
Some parents may worry that virtual classes don’t offer the hands-on attention of a traditional learning environment. And while the school will afford students a level of autonomy, there’s also an emphasis on tracking a student’s progress and offering coursework support. Staff members will monitor students online and call or email a student’s family, should they begin struggling in a virtual class. Additionally, there will be hotline hours during which a student can call a teacher who for help with any questions they might have.
And the interaction won’t be entirely virtual.
While courses will be offered on the computer, there is a bricks-and-mortar facility — the Martin Professional Development Center, housed in the old Eakin Elementary structure — for certain traditional functions, such as a counselor and space for students to meet and collaborate face-to-face. In addition, students will take their exams in person.
Going forward, officials see the new school growing rapidly. Steele went so far as to predict that within five years, it could be one of the largest schools in the state in terms of the number of students served.
Full-time virtual students remain a small minority: The state graduated seven last year. The new school has an initial capacity for 150 students, though Metro officials don’t expect anywhere near that number at the outset. But as the program grows, the size of the school will mostly depend on the number of teachers willing to take on something new.