In an effort to do things the right way, Hamilton County Schools will start small on its new virtual school, which opens today with about 20 students.
"We want to make it small to start with. We want to make sure we're meeting the kids' needs," said Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade.
The county received approval last spring to launch an online-only school after a 2010 change in state law allowed virtual programs to expand to the point of operating standalone schools. That change immediately sparked statewide debate as the Legislature opened the door for for-profit companies to operate publicly funded virtual schools.
But Hamilton County administrators insist their program is aimed at better serving students -- not about making money.
Because funding follows the child -- about $3,050 per student in Hamilton County -- the school system will no longer have to charge tuition to pay for virtual schooling. The school system's previous virtual school program had about 1,000 students enrolled throughout the course of the school year, most on a part-time basis. But the new school is aimed at providing students an alternative and free full-time school option.
Eventually, administrators see the virtual school reaching homebound and home-school students or those who just have trouble in traditional schooling.
But virtual education isn't for everybody.
"If you're not a self-motivated person, online education is not for you," McDade said.
The new school is under the direction of Sonja Rich, who also oversees Middle College High School, a partnership school with Chattanooga State Community College.
She said regular assessment and monitoring of progress will ensure that all virtual students receive enough direction and guidance from teachers, who must meet the same requirements as other public school teachers.
"It's much more individualized," Rich said.
Registration has closed for the virtual school, but administrators said they may admit more students next semester. Starting out, the school will serve mostly middle and high school students, though a few elementary schoolers are enrolled.
Hamilton County -- and other public school systems -- could face more public scrutiny of their virtual schools as K12 Inc.'s for-profit virtual school in Tennessee continues to come under fire for its methods and results. K12, the nation's largest publicly traded online education company, which has no connection to Hamilton County's virtual school, received immediate pushback from lawmakers for its Union County-based online school, which draws students from across the state.
And so far, its results are lackluster, with only 16.4 percent of the school's students scoring as proficient or advanced in math on state tests. In reading, 39.3 percent of students scored in the proficient or advanced categories.
This month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman characterized the school's performance as "demonstrably poor" and "unacceptable."
But local administrators are confident that Hamilton County's program will be different.
"For us, it's not necessarily about funding. It's about quality. We're going to do it the right way," Superintendent Rick Smith told the school board Thursday.
Including Hamilton and Union counties, nine virtual schools have opened or been approved by the state.
"There's a big difference between our virtual school and that K12 virtual school," said Olivia Brown, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which serves about 100 full-time students and several hundred part-time students in its virtual school.
The Memphis Virtual School opened in January and serves about 6,000 students, with about 70 full time.
Bradley County Schools started small with about 40 students when its online school began in August.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.