CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley County's newest school features a convenient location for students: wherever their computer happens to be.
Bradley County Virtual School began its very first semester a week ago with 39 students representing elementary grades through high school. It has eight teachers who work part time after their regular teaching day is done, in addition to Principal Zoe Renfro.
When Tennessee's General Assembly approved legislation last year enabling virtual schools in local school districts, Renfro immediately was interested. Within days of the legislation, she said, Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel and Dan Glascock, assistant director for secondary education curriculum, were expressing an interest.
"We wanted to be sure it was done the right way," said Renfro, the system's director of alternative education.
So school leaders took a year to think it through and research the idea.
Renfro said virtual students take the same state core curriculum as other students and have to log 32.5 hours of class time a week to avoid being truant. They have to take state-mandated tests, and they must take their final course tests in person.
There are safeguards against temptations, she said. Teachers usually can tell if a student is doing his or her own work, and Internet searches can reveal plagiarism.
She said final exams are monitored by proctors.
"If the student has not done the course work, they can't pass the exam," Renfro said.
Lydia Brown, one of the new school's students, came to the virtual school from Bradley Central High School as an 11th-grader.
"I'm the kind of student who learns really fast," she said.
Brown said she found herself finishing math projects in class before the period was over and then getting bored.
She and her parents selected the virtual school this year, she said, "because of the pace. I get to go at my own pace.
"It was my parents' idea," she said. "But I've already learned it gets you prepared for college."
Brown's courses this semester include mathematics, precalculus, English III and history.
Renfro said some students may need a little more time with concepts but the class has to move on to other topics. And, for some, the pace can be stepped up in some courses and slowed in others.
She said some students are coming to virtual school after home schooling, and medical concerns can make attending a full day of classes in a brick-and-mortar school more difficult.
Parent Crystal Kimsey said in an email that schedule flexibility is the reason she chose virtual school for her son. He and his girlfriend are expecting a child in September, she said. With virtual school, her son can work during the day and finish school in the evenings. And his girlfriend can work school around caring for the baby, she said.
"This is a huge blessing for our family," Kimsey wrote. "It gives both the kids a chance to graduate from high school without having to drop out or just get their GEDs. I am thrilled that virtual school exists, and I love the opportunity it gives to both of them."
Virtual school students can meet face-to-face with teachers anytime. In the Bradley County system, they also can take part in after-hours activities at the physical school for which they would be zoned. Such activities include auditioning for plays and musicals or clubs.
Teacher Scott Humberd, who also is technology director for the schools system, said virtual school is not about unseen students working with unseen teachers.
"Don't ever believe you can take the human element out of education," Humberd said.
The virtual school's teachers work out of the REACH Adult High School on Strawberry Lane.
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...