What's best for your student: A primer on the non-traditional schooling now trending in Tennessee Valley

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tuck Boruff searches for ripe mulberries with his classmates from The River Gorge Forest School.

School is not always rows of desks facing a whiteboard.

Sometimes it's an outcropping of rock next to a creek at the foot of Lookout Mountain, or a mixed-age classroom where hands-on lessons are customized for each learner.

For other students, the classroom is just a few computer clicks away from their seat at the kitchen table or a desk in their bedroom.

Hamilton County has 70 public schools and a tradition of private schools that stretches into the late 1800s. But some students here learn in less traditional settings - a trend that's only grown during the coronavirus pandemic.

"From the much-discussed 'pandemic pods,' (small groups of students gathering outside a formal school setting for in-person instruction) to a reported influx of parent inquiries about stand-alone virtual schools, private schools and homeschooling organizations, American parents are increasingly open to options beyond the neighborhood school," the U.S. Census Bureau reported.

As the pandemic continues to reshape where and how students learn, these non-traditional school options are gaining ground with families across the region.

Montessori learning

photo Staff file photo / Children from East Lake Montessori School gather around a tree marked with an educational plaque at East Lake Park.

This fall, Chattanooga will have four Montessori schools.

Montessori classrooms use a child-focused approach developed by an Italian physician, Dr. Maria Montessori, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Chattanooga area has had a Montessori school since 1973, when Roberta "Bobbe" Spink started The Montessori World of Children in a small house on Signal Mountain. In 1981, Spink and her husband moved the school to downtown Chattanooga, according to the school's website. It became The Montessori School in 2004, and the school now includes two toddler classes, four preschool classes, an elementary and middle school with 160 students.

The Montessori method fosters self-motivated growth for children in cognitive, emotional, social and physical development, according to the American Montessori Society. Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, and children work independently and in groups.

In 2016, East Lake Montessori opened to educate the children of New City Fellowship and the neighborhood of East Lake. The school's goal is to be a cross-culturally, racially and economically diverse community, according to its website. The school has a kindergarten and toddler and pre-school programs.

Two new Montessori schools - Montessori Elementary at Highland Park and Scenic City Montessori - will open to elementary and secondary students this fall.

Montessori Elementary at Highland Park will be the third charter school on the Highland Park campus, following the all-girls Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and all-boys Chattanooga Preparatory School. It will be co-educational, with students feeding into CGLA, Chattanooga Prep and other schools. School leaders expect about 215 students to enroll this year in grades pre-K-2 and fifth grade; they will add a third and fourth grade class in the following years. The school will welcome underserved students who may not typically have access to Montessori education.

The Montessori method is typically used in elementary schools. But Scenic City Montessori opens in Hixson this fall to middle and high schoolers.

Unlike a traditional middle or high school, the school will include multi-age classrooms, different seating and more personal choice. Learning will be project-based. Anisa Lowrey, one of the co-founders of Scenic City Montessori, described it as "choice within limits."

The private school will start with sixth to ninth grades this year and work up to twelfth grade, with fewer than 30 students total.

Forest schools

photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A class is seen during the Wauhatchie School forest day camp at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.

Chattanooga's forest school community is also growing, along with other educational settings that incorporate the natural world into learning.

The forest school model originated in Europe in the 1950s and features student-directed learning for extended periods of time in an outdoor setting, regardless of weather.

Wauhatchie School opened in 2015 and has grown to four programs based at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, Lookout Lake, the Chattanooga Audubon Society and on the campus of public charter school Ivy Academy. The school promotes nature-based learning, and children are educated surrounded by ponds, streams, forest, meadows and miles of hiking trails.

It provides activities that are child-initiated and child-led, with adults acting as facilitators, the school's website states.

The school's founder and former director, Jean Lomino, is opening Nature Kin Farm and Forest School to children aged 9-11 in August.

Another program, Nature Kin Pocket Forest Schools, will be an online membership program with a goal of expanding forest school education to parents, groups of families and traditional schools in any location, like a neighborhood or family's backyard.

Families spent more time outdoors during the pandemic, Lomino said, and many realized just how much their children benefited from being outside.

The River Gorge Forest School will also open this fall.

The school, situated against the Prentice Cooper State Forest and surrounded by 26,000 acres of semi-protected land, offers preschool and kindergarten for children aged 2 1/2 to 6 with curriculum based on what the students observe and their natural curiosity, Susanna Fussell Dodson, one of the school's three co-founders, said.

The programs are fully outdoors with shelters nearby in case of inclement weather, and the school focuses on holistic development of children through behavioral, emotional and physical development along with academics.

In addition to the forest schools, two other programs approach education through an environmental lens.

Ivy Academy, a public magnet school in Soddy Daisy, offers an educational program with an emphasis on scholarship, environmental stewardship and volunteerism. The school has about 24,000 square feet of outdoor covered and uncovered learning spaces that include a pollinator classroom located close to a contained beehive and a floating classroom.

A Hamilton County magnet school, Barger Academy of Fine Arts, in April debuted an outdoor classroom that's comprised of a pond, outdoor classroom area and garden.

The project, which began in 2019, involved students across grade levels participating in development of the space, from designing a patio area to making stepping stones.


photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Rhys Wilson, 7, and other members of his nature class look up at the waterfall at the Pocket Loop Trail in Chickamauga, Georgia. Wilson, along with his siblings, attend the nature group along with several other homeschooled families once a week to foster curiosity.

The coronavirus pandemic caused homeschooling to surge across the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, which offers a national and state-level look at the impact of COVID-19 on homeschooling rates, found the number of U.S. households that were homeschooling doubled during the pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March that the rate of households homeschooling their children rose to 11% by September 2020 from 5.4% just six months earlier.

"The global COVID-19 pandemic has sparked new interest in homeschooling and the appeal of alternative school arrangements has suddenly exploded," the bureau stated.

The Chattanooga area has long had a thriving homeschool community.

But local homeschool leaders report an increased interest among new families. Some parents had concerns about young children learning online early in the pandemic. Others were attracted to individualized learning plans for children with disabilities.

Others are seeking a faith-based curriculum or do not agree with public schools' curriculum.

"A big driver is when the children were Zoom schooling, that gave parents a taste of what it was like to base their child's education from home," said Jeannette Tulis, who homeschooled her four children and is secretary of the Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Association.

Tulis said while the online schooling put in place early in the pandemic is not exactly the same as homeschooling, it helped parents realize there are other options besides traditional school.

She said the Chattanooga homeschool community, which has always been robust, is growing rapidly.

The Facebook group for the local chapter of the Tennessee Home Education Association has more than doubled since last year from about 1,000 members to 2,700 members, Tulis said.

"Homeschooling is now almost mainstream," she said. "It's not considered way out there. Time has tested it and shown it to be a very viable way to educate your child."

Online learning

photo Staff file photo / A student does schoolwork at Chris Molinski's home in Chattanooga. Molinski is acting as a proctor for his son and three other Normal Park third-graders who are enrolled in virtual school but meet at his family's house for virtual learning as a group.

Some Tennessee parents and students find the best choice is a virtual school - in which the school uses technology to deliver instruction to students in a remote setting.

Virtual learning is ideally suited for students who work independently and at a faster pace, said Cody Patterson, a spokesman for Hamilton County Schools.

"There is nothing preventing a student from moving forward in a course (waiting on teachers, other students, etc.) and they can actually complete a course before the year end," he said. "It also can be a positive experience for students who struggle to focus or have challenges with social interactions in a traditional classroom setting."

In Tennessee, virtual schools are created, operated and overseen by school districts and students are measured against the same academic standards as students in traditional public school settings, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. There are 57 of these schools for the 2021-22 school year.

The state education department approved 29 new virtual schools for the upcoming school year, including a K-15 elementary school in Marion County.

Marion already has a virtual high school and Hamilton County has a K-12 virtual school.

Research shows that students benefit most from in-person classroom instruction, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a recent statement. Still, school districts are accommodating those who prefer to learn from home.

"Districts are ensuring families who prefer a virtual education setting for their students have those options and can continue to make the best choices for their children," Schwinn said.

The Hamilton County Virtual School started as a remote learning program in the early 2000s and became an official school in 2012.

Students are selected through a lottery process and enrollment numbers have jumped around over the past few years.

In the 2019-20 school year, 30 students were for grades 4-12, the only grades available at the time. In the 2020-21 school year, enrollment jumped significantly during the pandemic to 800 students for K-12.

As of mid-August, 353 students were enrolled for the upcoming school year.

All graded student work is done online, but teachers provide supplemental instruction to aid students to help them understand the online courses and are available for support and to answer questions, Patterson said.

"It is presented to the student very much like an online college course - the work is there whenever the student wants to log in and work," he said.

More Info

* Scenic City Montessorisceniccitymontessori.com* The Montessori Schoolhttps://www.themontessorischool.net/* East Lake Montessorieastlakemontessori.org* Montessori Elementary at Highland Parkmehp.org/Wauhatchie School* wauhatchie.org* Nature Kin Farm and Forest Schoolwww.farmandforestschool.org* River Gorge Forest Schoolwww.rivergorgeforestschool.com* Ivy Academyivyacademychattanooga.com* Barger Academy of Fine Artsbargeracademy.hcde.org* Chattanooga Southeast Tennessee Home Education Associationwww.csthea.org* Tennessee Home Education Associationtnhea.org* Tennessee virtual schoolstn.gov/education/school-options/virtual-schools* Hamilton County virtual schoolvirtualschool.hcde.org