Innovator | Feature

Starting and Maintaining a Virtual School

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Scott Merrick is the v-Learning Specialist at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (TN). Here, he recounts how the district built a virtual school, how he keeps students engaged and how he plans to expand the school's offerings.

Clicks Over Bricks
In July 2010 I was approached by Dr. Kecia Ray, now president of ISTE, to move from my decade-plus private school teaching job into the public sector. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, where Dr. Ray was executive director of learning technology, wanted to create an online school option for its 80,000-plus-student school district. Deciding I could do a good service to a huge population — and maybe help to forge future schema for thousands upon thousands of current and future students — I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We established MNPS’s virtual learning program, housed in Nashville Middle College High School, that first year while researching methods to create a sustainable and cost-effective actual school. After Tennessee legalized virtual schools in the summer of 2011, ours was the first approved. Nothing like this had been done in Tennessee, and my understanding is that these are developing in silos throughout the country, so it was a challenge for us to create a program out of nothing.

High Standards
We have a broad range of kids: the energetic students who want to accelerate and explore advanced options like dual enrollment or advanced placement; students who are out earning incomes and pursuing careers; young mothers and fathers who need to be at home; and kids who have been bullied or faced other adverse social behaviors in brick-and-mortar schools. The one thing we wanted to make sure of is that the virtual school didn’t become a haven for kids who just don’t want to go to school. People now understand that this is very challenging material, from Florida Virtual School and eDynamic Learning. We have a school counselor who interviews students before they enroll to make sure this is the right program for them and that they understand this won’t be easy.

Keeping Students Up to Speed
The online environment allows students to go at their own pace, but it has to be a minimum pace. We have established a system of support called Performance Concerns, which means that everyone is in the loop when students start to fall behind. We also tie it to attendance. A student can be deemed truant if he or she has fallen a certain percentage of each course behind our Pacing Guide. It’s human nature for kids to who are in charge of their own learning to deprioritize it, but staying on pace is critical if they are going to be successful with this mode of learning. The Performance Concerns process keeps a meter on that. For those who do fall behind, there is detailed communication from teachers to students, parents and school counselors, as well as timely intervention. As a result, we are a very high-performing school. We just got our ACT scores back, and we performed well above the district average.

Up for Discussion
We want students to take responsibility for their own learning. When they do that, that’s something they can carry with them into the world. At the same time, we have a strong intervention protocol to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Our system of support includes once-a-week tutoring in math, languages, science and English language literacy that attracts small groups of students. At the end of a module there is a discussion-based assessment: a required telephone conversation, guided by a rubric, in which the teacher will ask questions directly related to what the student has just learned. If the student performs in a shaky manner, the teacher will have him or her go through it again, then hold another assessment. Many students say they get to know their teachers better in this platform than they have in brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Room to Grow
Over time I have established what I call “Merrick’s Law of Virtual School Growth,” which states that enrollment will approximately double each time we either begin a school year or offer a summer program. That pattern has continued to prove true. Last summer we had around 200 students in our Summer Success Program, double what we had the summer before, and this school year we have around 100 full-time students and 350 part-timers taking one or more classes with us while also attending their school of zone. We began with high school, and in the fall we will add seventh and eighth grade. We’ve started small, but theoretically, if a school like this is budgeted to grow — and we are — it really has no cap. Georgia Virtual Learning is a statewide program with 21,000 students. I’m thinking we’ll get there.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.