Virtual school on hold here

Friday, September 23, 2011

There are too many unknowns now for Marshall County to commit to starting a virtual school.

This was the conclusion at the end of the school board's curriculum committee's two-hour meeting Sept. 12.

Tennessee lawmakers on July 1 authorized students to attend what am-ounts to a an online school, much in the same way, for example, Phoenix University holds college classes online.

Technology supervisor Suzanne Ingram brought Derek Ledford, her colleague from System Integrations, to tell school board members about virtual schools.

Tennessee passed the law permitting virtual schools less than six weeks before the start of school in most counties. The state board of education is to meet in October to establish rules and guidelines for virtual schools.

Why pass a law with almost no regulations in place?

Ingram had no answer, shrugging and saying, "Go figure."

Nevertheless, Ledford pointed out, virtual schools are part of the future of education, and the next seven to 10 years will see a radical change in how instruction is delivered in grades K through 12. Post-secondary education has already embraced the virtual model in a big way. Already "a couple of hundred thousand" students are in virtual schools in 29 states, learning from more than 5,000 virtual teachers.

If Marshall County sets up a virtual school, Ledford said, there are several advantages:

* It protects existing student enrollment, by giving students who want to go to virtual school a chance to stay in Marshall County;

* Enrollment numbers might increase, and thus increase funding, if children who are currently in private school or home school enroll in the virtual school; and,

* Students here could be offered courses not normally available in small school systems, such as classes in Mandarin Chinese.

Ledford clarified that there are many models for virtual school, and his company can help with whatever Marshall County's school board members decide to offer.

Students bring their state funding with them to the county where they enroll in virtual school, but the host county also becomes accountable for their progress, and is responsible for supplying any special education services that may be needed.

"It's quite a concern" for special education supervisor Lisa Ventura, said interim assistant director Dr. Larry Miller.

Another concern is how virtual-school teachers will be evaluated.

"That's a big concern," admitted Ledford. "We haven't heard an answer." This will presumably come after the state board meets next month.

Ledford was clear on one thing: virtual schools are not for every pupil, and they absolutely will not work without a parent or other "learning coach" in daily contact with the student. They also won't work for hands-on vocational education.

There's time for Marshall County to decide which way to go, Ledford said, but he also said counties that decide early will "gain the most."

Board member Barbara Kennedy agreed with him, and went further, stating, "If we don't go this way, charter schools are going to rear their head in Marshall County."

"It's wise to take our time and ask lots of questions," Ingram said near the end of the meeting. She cautioned board members not to ignore virtual schools, however, saying, "It's not going to go away."

"Get enough information to make good local decisions," counseled Ledford. "You're going to get a lot of questions. You need to be prepared to message your model, and energize rather than demoralize people."

"I think we have a tremendous amount of potential here," summarized board member Randy Perryman.

Local leaders also attended the meeting: commissioner Anna Childress, County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, JECBD executive director Mike Wiles, and Lewisburg Economic and Community Development Director Greg Lowe.

"There's still a ton of questions," exclaimed Liggett.

"You won't get there even in four or five meetings, but you will get there," said Ledford reassuringly.

"We'll work through Suzanne (Ingram) to decide what to do next," concluded curriculum committee chairman Kristen Gold.

"Look at what the state board comes up with (in October) and start planning your school," was Ingram's recommendation at the end of the meeting.