OTHERS GOING VIRTUAL
School districts approved for virtual schools:
• Union County
• Metro Nashville
• Putnam County
Districts with applications awaiting approval:
• Hamilton County
• Robertson County
• Wilson County
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
An online-only Hamilton County Virtual School will likely throw open its virtual doors in the next few months, offering services to more students while also saving them thousands in tuition.
The Hamilton County Department of Education has applied to open its own virtual school, which would move its current courses from a district program to a state-approved individual online school.
State officials say they will likely accept the county's application for a standalone school, giving the virtual program the same rights, responsibilities and regulations as any other public school.
That would allow the school district to stop charging tuition for students taking the online courses, making the program free for students across the county -- and possibly other areas of the state. Tuition now runs about $250 per half-credit for each nine weeks of class.
If approval comes soon, the school could open as early as January.
"The bottom line is that it will open up access to our programs to more kids," said Debi Crabtree, director of the Hamilton County Virtual School.
Currently, Hamilton County's virtual program is an arm of the school district, operating more like a department than an individual school.
It's self-supported by tuition from public, private and home-school students who take some or all of their courses online. Classes are staffed by about 40 Hamilton County teachers who teach full-time across the district. Teachers receive supplemental pay for teaching virtual courses.
The virtual program began locally in 2002 and now teaches between 850 and 1,000 individual courses annually to about 800 students, mostly from Hamilton County.
Crabtree said students from many backgrounds find benefits in virtual learning. While some choose to go online to avoid the social distractions of traditional schooling, others may enter virtual schools after being expelled from other schools.
And some students just prosper in the online environment, working one-on-one with a teacher, Crabtree said.
Virtual courses can also open up opportunities for extended learning. A student in a small, rural area could take advanced courses such as physics online, even if his or her school is unable to offer the course.
In May, the Tennessee General Assembly approved a law expanding the use of virtual programs to the point of operating virtual programs as standalone public schools. The legislation, called the Virtual Public Schools Act, also allowed schools to contract with for-profit companies to run their virtual programs.
The law drew ire from some state Democrats, who thought it was wrong to send the state's education dollars to private companies. In an Aug. 28 column published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, labeled the law as "possibly [the] most destructive" bill to pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year. Berke questioned the merit of passing state education dollars to private companies with no restrictions or consequences.
Union County, a rural system north of Knoxville, was one of the first to receive a school number under the law. That system contracts with the Virginia company K12 Inc. and the school district receives about $5,300 in state funding for each student enrolled.
Currently, about 1,800 Tennessee students in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled in the company's virtual school through Union County. Students are charged an administrative fee, but the rest of the funds are sent along to K12.
But Crabtree says Hamilton County won't work with a for-profit company. It won't have to.
The local program already has a catalog of more than 100 online courses and teachers who are acclimated to teaching over the web.
"We have teachers in Hamilton County who are very used to that," Superintendent Rick Smith said. "For us, this is not new."
But that doesn't mean the virtual school wouldn't have opportunity for revenue.
By making virtual programs stand-alone schools, the estimated $5,300 in per-pupil funding is up for grabs. Currently, students in Hamilton County's virtual program are still associated with another school, usually the school they're zoned for. That means their state funding doesn't follow them to the online program. That's why families now must support the program through tuition.
Crabtree said Hamilton County could partner with smaller school districts, which may not have the capability to offer their own virtual programs and that could bring more students and funding.
"We're not in the business to make money," she said. "But every dollar we can put into the program will make it better."
Her plans have yet to be discussed with the Hamilton County Board of Education, which would need to approve the courses before moving forward.
GOOD OR BAD?
Recent studies estimate that more than 1 million of the nation's public school students take online courses. But not everyone is convinced of the value of online learning.
Some critics have questioned the effectiveness of online course work and pointed out the loss of social learning, both in the student-to-teacher relationship and a student's relationship with peers. But online advocates such as Crabtree tout the individualized attention a virtual teacher can provide a student. Unlike a traditional classroom of 20 or 30 students, the virtual teacher can build an individualized learning plan and mold lessons for each student.
Still, virtual isn't for everyone, she said.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education examined the results of more than 1,000 empirical studies on online learning. The department found that most online students fared marginally better than traditional face-to-face learners. But the study notes that students with blended instruction -- both online and face-to-face -- did better than either group alone.
Crabtree said that blending of traditional and online classes has the potential to dramatically increase student learning. She envisions public schools across the country offering a variety of online classes, even to students who spend most of their days in traditional classrooms.
"What we need is a new model," she said. "This one-size-fits-all model of education needs to go."