published Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Hamilton County set to open virtual school online

The Hamilton County Department of Education has applied to open its own state-approved online school.
Photo Illustation by Alex Washburn/Laura Walker
The Hamilton County Department of Education has applied to open its own state-approved online school. Photo Illustation by Alex Washburn/Laura Walker
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School districts approved for virtual schools:

• Union County

• Metro Nashville

• Putnam County

Districts with applications awaiting approval:

• Bristol

• Hamilton County

• Memphis

• Robertson County

• Wilson County

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

An online-only Hamilton County Virtual School will likely throw open its virtual doors in the next few months, offering services to more students while also saving them thousands in tuition.

The Hamilton County Department of Education has applied to open its own virtual school, which would move its current courses from a district program to a state-approved individual online school.

State officials say they will likely accept the county's application for a standalone school, giving the virtual program the same rights, responsibilities and regulations as any other public school.

That would allow the school district to stop charging tuition for students taking the online courses, making the program free for students across the county -- and possibly other areas of the state. Tuition now runs about $250 per half-credit for each nine weeks of class.

If approval comes soon, the school could open as early as January.

"The bottom line is that it will open up access to our programs to more kids," said Debi Crabtree, director of the Hamilton County Virtual School.

Currently, Hamilton County's virtual program is an arm of the school district, operating more like a department than an individual school.

It's self-supported by tuition from public, private and home-school students who take some or all of their courses online. Classes are staffed by about 40 Hamilton County teachers who teach full-time across the district. Teachers receive supplemental pay for teaching virtual courses.

The virtual program began locally in 2002 and now teaches between 850 and 1,000 individual courses annually to about 800 students, mostly from Hamilton County.

Crabtree said students from many backgrounds find benefits in virtual learning. While some choose to go online to avoid the social distractions of traditional schooling, others may enter virtual schools after being expelled from other schools.

And some students just prosper in the online environment, working one-on-one with a teacher, Crabtree said.

Virtual courses can also open up opportunities for extended learning. A student in a small, rural area could take advanced courses such as physics online, even if his or her school is unable to offer the course.


In May, the Tennessee General Assembly approved a law expanding the use of virtual programs to the point of operating virtual programs as standalone public schools. The legislation, called the Virtual Public Schools Act, also allowed schools to contract with for-profit companies to run their virtual programs.

The law drew ire from some state Democrats, who thought it was wrong to send the state's education dollars to private companies. In an Aug. 28 column published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, labeled the law as "possibly [the] most destructive" bill to pass the Republican-controlled General Assembly this year. Berke questioned the merit of passing state education dollars to private companies with no restrictions or consequences.

Union County, a rural system north of Knoxville, was one of the first to receive a school number under the law. That system contracts with the Virginia company K12 Inc. and the school district receives about $5,300 in state funding for each student enrolled.

Currently, about 1,800 Tennessee students in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled in the company's virtual school through Union County. Students are charged an administrative fee, but the rest of the funds are sent along to K12.

But Crabtree says Hamilton County won't work with a for-profit company. It won't have to.

The local program already has a catalog of more than 100 online courses and teachers who are acclimated to teaching over the web.

"We have teachers in Hamilton County who are very used to that," Superintendent Rick Smith said. "For us, this is not new."

But that doesn't mean the virtual school wouldn't have opportunity for revenue.

By making virtual programs stand-alone schools, the estimated $5,300 in per-pupil funding is up for grabs. Currently, students in Hamilton County's virtual program are still associated with another school, usually the school they're zoned for. That means their state funding doesn't follow them to the online program. That's why families now must support the program through tuition.

Crabtree said Hamilton County could partner with smaller school districts, which may not have the capability to offer their own virtual programs and that could bring more students and funding.

"We're not in the business to make money," she said. "But every dollar we can put into the program will make it better."

Her plans have yet to be discussed with the Hamilton County Board of Education, which would need to approve the courses before moving forward.


Recent studies estimate that more than 1 million of the nation's public school students take online courses. But not everyone is convinced of the value of online learning.

Some critics have questioned the effectiveness of online course work and pointed out the loss of social learning, both in the student-to-teacher relationship and a student's relationship with peers. But online advocates such as Crabtree tout the individualized attention a virtual teacher can provide a student. Unlike a traditional classroom of 20 or 30 students, the virtual teacher can build an individualized learning plan and mold lessons for each student.

Still, virtual isn't for everyone, she said.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education examined the results of more than 1,000 empirical studies on online learning. The department found that most online students fared marginally better than traditional face-to-face learners. But the study notes that students with blended instruction -- both online and face-to-face -- did better than either group alone.

Crabtree said that blending of traditional and online classes has the potential to dramatically increase student learning. She envisions public schools across the country offering a variety of online classes, even to students who spend most of their days in traditional classrooms.

"What we need is a new model," she said. "This one-size-fits-all model of education needs to go."

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about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
velmaellis said...

Online courses offer students the chance to participate in classes on their own schedule. You may connect from your home or office, reducing the amount of time you spend traveling. read "High Speed Universities" article on how online is changing the way we study

October 20, 2011 at 1:09 a.m.
EaTn said...

This is a forerunner of the future that will give all students access to the equivalent of private high schools to the best universities in the country. The amassed student loan debt will be another catalyst to speed up the process.

October 20, 2011 at 4:50 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

Having recently returned to night school and taken some of these online courses marketed as conventional math lectures, I can only see a radical decrease in the quality of instruction offered through these kinds of tools. The Chattanooga State Math Department, for example, has become a miserable shadow of its former self. It's the outsourcing companies.

While some online work, like repetitive grading of papers, can be done more efficiently through an automated interface, it's not suited to everything.

Actual classes in topics that require thought, for example, are not well suited to online multiple choice web pages.

I have had professors habitually fail to teach the entire class period. They tell students, "Just watch the video." It's a horrible rip-off.

A ten minute online video is not an acceptable substitute for two ours forty minutes worth of lecture a week.

The textbooks? Filled with problems never explained, assigned or graded. They may as well start selling everyone the teacher's manual. If you want to do well, you have to teach yourself anyway. We may as well get answers to more than just the odd-numbered problems.

Unprepared professors used to just fail to update their notes every 20 years. Now they routinely show up to class without textbooks of their own, without notes or plans, and then they refer students to some website written by someone else. It's not a positive trend in education.

There's a right way and a wrong way to use the Internet in the classroom. As usual, we will get both at the same time. Whatever's cheapest will dominate that characteristic of classroom instruction. "Just watch the video" because that's cheaper than a teacher actually preparing for and teaching a lecture, for example.

What'll happen here locally? What continues to happen. Teachers who don't want to teach another damn section of Math will shove their students off to some multiple choice web company. They will stop teaching. We see that they already have.

What's worse, undesirable students will stop getting the same class as everyone else. Instead, they'll get the same non-class as everyone else, online. This is what we can easily see happening now in our education system today.

Teachers and institutions, especially at the college level, need to be held to a standard that requires them to declare and bill courses as outsourced correspondence courses, which is what these online classes are. A correspondence course by multiple guess is not of the same quality as a traditional lecture class.

Seeing this kind of lazy teaching infect the secondary school system is bad news.

October 20, 2011 at 6:34 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

The main place to look for the diploma mills' product is in the outsourcing company. They provide all of the materials. They grade all of the student responses. They hold no educational credentials. They assume no liability or responsibility. They are answerable to no one.

Those outsourcing companies are the sad corporate excuse for the craft and trade of effective teaching.

There's a right way and a wrong way to use computers in the classroom. When no teacher in a Math department can teach their own class, we've long since gone down the wrong path.

Get back on track. Reject the cheapest solution. Build the equity we need in our community. Fast bucks and a flashy download speed won't cut it in education. We need people to stop graduating from high school without ever having read a book. We need to stop expecting that school is done once and then finished. We certainly don't need to have to carry some outsourcing scam diploma mill as we fight our way through the mire of political educational funding fights.

Reject this misuse of computers. Insist on quality education. That means we will have to pay for it and do the work. But, if the educators involved can't screw their courage to the sticking place and actually teach a lecture and grade the papers, then it won't matter how much digital glitz coats the class like sugary frosting: the students will lose.

October 20, 2011 at 6:52 a.m.
kfratz said...

Having taken online classes, they are a POOR substitute for teacher-pupil interaction.

October 20, 2011 at 12:49 p.m.
ChattDad said...

My son took classes with Hamilton County Virtual School. All I can say is if you want your child to make up a credit without learning a dang thing, this is for you. The HCVS course my child was in was a JOKE! It was mostly at lot of reading and clicking to turn pages, VERY few assignments, and a "teacher" that didn't seem to be there. My son asked questions that took the teacher DAYS to answer and then the answer didn't even make sense. This year he is having SO MANY problems in his class this year because he didn't learn what he needed to in his HCVS "class" - but he got a good grade and "earned" his credit. Thanks, HCVS, for giving my son a credit for nothing and setting him up for failure in his class this year. Great job!

One has to wonder if HCDE is doing this because they think it will be a good way to educate our children or if they are just worried that they will lose money by parents enrolling their kids in other - BETTER - virtual school programs. For Pete's sake school board!! Please, please, PLEASE have someone look at the what has passed for a "course" at HCVS in the past and make sure your new virtual "school" doesn't have the same the same watered-down course work, absent teachers, and credits that are given out for basically clicking buttons.

October 21, 2011 at 11:03 a.m.
js60010 said...

Online learning quite possibly saved my daughter's high school career, so I am a huge fan. I am NOT, however, a fan of Hamilton County Virtual School. I see many errors in the philosophy of the school system if they plan for Ms. Crabtree to run this program. Hamilton County Virtual School seems to be focusing on ways to keep and gain money rather than on quality learning.

Let me start by explaining my experience. My daughter needed, for medical reasons, to take an online course while attending a Hamilton County High School. Working with Ms. Crabtree was less than professional during the semester she took classes with Hamilton County Virtual School. I had been told of opportunities for my daughter's tuition for the online courses to be waived by my daughter's school, but Ms. Crabtree insisted I pay the course fees. My family would have had difficult time paying for my daughter's online course(s) the second semester, so the administration at the school turned me onto e for Tenn, which also was offered in Hamilton County. This program was run by caring and compassionate people. The teachers contacted my daughter and even ME! regularly and the administration was more than caring and professional, unlike my previous experience. Imagine that! They cared about my daughter and not about money?! My daughter was engaged in the curriculum, much unlike the previous semester when we took classes from Hamilton County Virtual School. My daughter even told me she felt like she learned more in the online classes with e for Tenn than in her regular classes. What made the situation even better was that the e for Tenn, once made aware of our circumstances, was able to waive the fees for my daughter's courses. I've been reading the articles by Senator Berke, and I agree with him that we should not allow for-profit programs to take our tax dollars for students taking online courses, but what happened to e for Tenn? This article indicates that Union County gets over $5,000 for each student taking an online class, but Hamilton County Virtual says they will work with smaller systems too. Who will get the money then? Aren't they doing the same thing, especially since I know the service is subpar? I would support a quality program doing something like this, but there is no way Hamilton County virtual School is quality. It too will become a diploma mill, just like K12, inc.

October 24, 2011 at 3:22 p.m.
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