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Virtual academy set to expand despite low test scores

2:26 PM, Aug 8, 2013   |    comments
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*This story has been updated to include information provided by K12 the day after 10News aired this piece.

Another Tennessee school district is jumping on the virtual school bandwagon, despite student test scores that ranked the state's first publicly funded virtual school amongst the lowest in the state.

The Tennessee Virtual Academy opened under the auspices of Union County Schools in 2011, after state legislatures cleared the way for the education model that allows students to be home-schooled via their computers.

The publicly funded program came under criticism last February after a leaked email showed school leaders asked teachers to change the grades of failing students.

The 2011-2012 TCAP data available showed TNVA students scored in the bottom 11% of the state. The scores prompted Governor Haslam to propose capping enrollment.

Now the Campbell County school district has voted to offer the same program. This year, they are enrolling kindergarten through tenth grade. They eventually intend to eventually expand to all high school grades.

Just as the TNVA is operated for Union County using a program designed by a for-profit company called K12 Inc., the new Tennessee Cyber Academy will also be offered as a public school by Campbell County using the same vendor.

The state pays Union County about $5,200 per student, the majority of which goes to K12 Inc.

Campbell County School Board member Eugene Lawson says their district has made a similar arrangement.

State representative and educator Gloria Johnson has called for the state to ban K12 in the past.

"I would say to Campbell County 'be very careful,'" said Johnson. "The little bit of money that the county gets from this is not going to help in the end game with these kids."

Johnson says she has reached out to the program in the past for data and to try and observe a teacher in action, but gotten nowhere.

"No accountability," said Johnson. "Why are we putting our public education tax dollars into something that is failing so many children?"

K12 Senior Vice President Jeff Kwitowski says he found Johnson's criticism unfair given the several opportunities offered in Nashville for officials to observe K12 educators in action.

According to Union County Director of Schools James Carter, the TVNA currently has about 3,000 students enrolled. 10News tried to get enrollment data from Campbell County but our calls to the  school district went unreturned Wednesday.

A K12 spokesperson also declined 10News' request for an interview on the subject of school accountability. Kwitowski followed up to say that K12 Inc. defers to the school district on issues of accountability, because the districts operate the program.

TNVA Principal Josh Williams said he would consider answering questions, but only if 10News submitted them in writing, in advance, to have them approved.

Union County Director of Schools James Carter says he has seen last school year's TCAP data, which the state will release later this month. He said while some students made small gains, the stores still rank amongst the worst in the state.

"If you're the lowest performing school in the state, but you improve, you're only working against yourself," said Carter.

Kwitowski says their first year TCAP data better reflects where the students were coming in to the program, because many took the test after only 6 months with K12 Inc.

He says they will continue to work with districts in the future to improve in years to come.

"If you have students that are able to demonstrate growth and gains then that's moving in the right direction," said Kwitowski by phone Thursday.

Asked about the scores on Wednesday, Governor Haslam pointed to his previous attempt to cap virtual enrollment at 5,000 students statewide. Instead, lawmakers took a wait-and-see approach.

Earlier this year they passed a law allowing virtual schools to continue to expand until they fail to meet performance requirements three years in a row.

When the state releases school-specific TCAP data later this month, it will be the second year in a row TNVA has failed requirements.

Haslam says the state will look at the data.

"We're going to hold everybody accountable to the same standards regardless of the type of school," said the governor.

 

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