When it’s time for school to start, Jayla Slater doesn’t leave her dining table at home.
The 5th grader receives her lessons through a computer. She and her sister, Jalea, are enrolled in Tennessee Virtual Academy—the state’s first public online school.
“It’s not a person speaking in front of you, but it is kind of neat because it explains it so you can understand it,” says Jayla.
A new state law this year allows districts to set up virtual schools, making a free education available online to any student in Tennessee. Signing up her kids was a no-brainer for Ester Slater.
“I like the flexibility,” says Slater. “I like that if we are really excited about something we can dig in deep. We don’t have to stop. We’re not moving at anybody else’s pace but our own—within guidelines.
The Slater girls were already home-schooled, but Ester expects her daughters to go the traditional route when they are older. She views the online public school as the perfect bridge.
“Because it’s offered through a public venue I know its closely related to what the public schools are doing or maybe even more advanced than what the public schools are doing. So when they enter traditional school they’ll be with their peers.”
More than 2-thousand students have signed up for Tennessee Virtual Academy run by K-12, a company based in Virginia. The academy is statewide, paid for by tax dollars, and free to residents of Tennessee. A few local districts also have online programs for their students, like Nashville-Davidson County—which has about 135 high school students enrolled. Jay Steele supervises the Nashville program.
“What I like to call the dinosaur is traditional classroom in straight shows with lecture style only,” Steele says. “Those days are gone and kids can text, kids can watch videos and kids can listen to music and learn at the same time. This really meets kids where they are and that’s very important.”
Steele says online public school students must meet the same state standards as others: attendance– monitored electronically; testing; and GPA requirements. Online teachers check in and help students stay on track. Slater confirms that.
“We have a teacher assigned to our family,” says Slater. “ So there is accountability there. And there is very strict attendance. If you don’t log in attendance, after 10 days they’ll send you in to truancy.”
But there are critics of online public schools. Some question for-profit companies being paid with tax dollars to educate students— even if hired by the local districts. Others say free online education will drive more people away from their districts into home-schooling. Steele disagrees.
“I see that as an opportunity because there’s no real policing of home-school curriculum and I think this is a rigorous approved curriculum that covers state standards and it is an opportunity for the public schools to pull those students back into a rigorous curriculum.” Steele says. “I predict that within 5 years this could be one of the largest schools in Tennessee.”
And Slater believes that possibility can also be good for traditional schools.
“Everyone can’t stay at home or bring their kids to work or have those things. But—it can make them place a demand on their schools and their school boards and the lawmakers in their area to make a change and have better things and quality education available to them.”