ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County Board of Education’s new Virtual Academy, which was intended to attract homeschooled and private school students back into the system, already has 35 enrolled.
Director of Schools Matt Hixson told the BOE during Thursday’s meeting that of those 35 students, 10 are new to the school system, and another 19 were planning on attending other institutions such as private school or an independent homeschool program.
Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, Hawkins County’s enrollment decreased by 124 students. The school system receives about $7,800 annually from the state per student.
The Virtual Academy was launched in response to that enrollment decrease, which not only cost the school system state revenue, but it also paved the way for the County Commission to withhold about $205,000 in property tax revenue from the school system without affecting maintenance of effort requirements.
On Thursday, the BOE approved the academy’s online curriculum provider.
The revenue generated by new students will more than double the cost of the program, Hixson added.
“We feel that’s a pretty good start to that pilot program, and you will see that reflected in our request for online curriculum,” Hixson told the BOE. “A lot of those students are coming in at elementary and middle school, and we didn’t have an online curriculum in place for them. We did for high school. So there is going to be some cost.”
Although he would prefer to accept new Virtual Academy students at the beginning of a semester, or at least every nine-week period, Hixson said the system is considering all applicants. Pathways Alternative School Principal Sharon Lindsey is supervising the program.
“We are entertaining any application that comes in, but they are on a one-by-one basis,” Hixson said. “Mrs. Lindsay is interviewing the students and the parents at that point. ... We are taking them as they come because we have students who, because of home situations, or whatever the case may be, have been in an online program, and they want to continue that.”
On Thursday, the BOE approved teaching workbooks, webinars, and courses for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 for the Virtual Academy at a cost not to exceed $85,000 from Edgenuity, Inc.
Hixson said the $85,000 figure is a “worst case scenario,” and he would estimate only a quarter of that will be needed based on enrollment. That $85,000 provides enough funding to serve about 100 students in the Virtual Academy, he noted.
“Edgenuity is the online curriculum delivery and teaching system for our elementary and middle school (Virtual Academy),” Hixson said. “We have some high school students who are using it as well who do not have access to courses through our Niswonger-provided coursework. We did have quite a few elementary and middle school who enrolled in the Virtual Academy, and we did need to secure a curriculum delivery system. In the future, if this continues to grow, it is my desire to have our staff teach these classes so that we would not have to contract out. But this initial stage, and for the first several years of our Virtual Academy, we will need to contract with these agencies to bring in the curriculum for the needed courses.”
Virtual Academy students are also allowed to participate in sports, vocational programs, and other extracurricular activities.
“I think it's going to be a very successful option for some students within the county,” Hixson said. “I went to a presentation a couple of weeks ago, and the (Tennessee) commissioner of education said if we aren’t progressive in public education, we will be competing directly with charters. The more proactive we can be in offering a menu of items for stakeholders — our parents and our students — the more successful we will be. Specifically, these type of issues are really hitting the rural systems.”
Hixson added, “It is a very rigorous program. Students are being challenged. They are going to be testing. They are signed up for their home school, so those tests count for the home school. Their attendance counts for their home school. Enrollment counts for the county. It’s a win-win across the board.”