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In Defense of the Tennessee Virtual Academy: An Open Letter

A day in the life of a TNVA student
A day in the life of a TNVA student
Emily L. Goodman

To Whom it May Concern,

For the past two and a half years, my two older children have been students at the Tennessee Virtual Academy. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs and changes with the school, but we’ve stuck with it—as have a number of other parents. We stick with it not because my kids have a burning urge to spend the day at home, bored with each other and with me, but because it’s what works for us.

My daughter would succeed wherever she was planted, in whatever school we chose to have her attend: public, private, homeschool, charter school. She has an eager-to-please nature and a go-with-the-flow attitude that would enable her to succeed no matter what she was doing.

Her brother is a different story. He has a number of social and behavioral disabilities that we’ve wrestled with since he was in kindergarten. It started with auditory processing disorder, which, in him, manifested as an inability to comprehend what was going on any time there was background noise. In a noisy classroom setting, that meant that he was missing valuable instruction time; but more importantly (because he is also brilliant, and learns just fine whether he is listening to his teacher or not), he missed instructions. Directions. Vital moments when the teacher would tell the class as a whole to do this, or not do that, and because he was unable to assimilate those pieces of information, he had no idea what he was supposed to be doing. This meant that many times, he got in trouble…and had no idea why he was in trouble. It led to other issues, issues that I won’t air here, but that he struggled with throughout of his school career.

Imagine sitting in the middle of an elementary school cafeteria. They aren’t exactly the quietest place on earth. Now, imagine that the teacher’s assistant is leaning over to you and asking you to do something. You don’t know how to lip read. She’s speaking only to you. Is she asking you to get up and come with her? To stop doing something you’re doing? To do something? Maybe she’s just making conversation—but you have no idea, because you can’t understand a word she’s saying. With all the background noise, it’s like she’s speaking another language.

On all too many occasions, my son got in trouble in those moments because he simply had no idea what was being said to him. That led to him being labeled a troublemaker. In many ways, that began the habit of acting like a troublemaker. There are some other underlying issues, some other problems that we’re dealing with. ADHD heads the list, but it doesn’t complete it by any means—and it made having him in a traditional classroom a nightmare.

At its worst, just before I pulled him out, a week in which I didn’t hear from his teacher at least twice was a good week. I had started to cringe every time I saw the school’s number pop up on my phone display. We were struggling, even drowning.

I tried an all-natural, no-processed-foods diet to help limit some of his behavioral issues. It worked…when it was adhered to. After a nasty episode when I’d had to crack down on him and insist that he not have anything sweet for a while, either, his teacher called me and wanted to know if I could “lift his restriction” for the purposes of a lesson (I no longer recall about what) that required her students to create an ice cream sundae.

I tried explaining to his teacher how to handle his behavioral issues, even going so far as to try to get an IEP that would require them to meet a few basic classroom modifications in order to accommodate his disabilities. They informed me that, because his issues weren’t affecting his academic performance, there was “nothing they could do.” I tried getting them to communicate with me, but often, days would go by while I heard nothing and assumed that everything was all right, and then out of the blue, I would get a call from the principal, letting me know that my son had been in his office every day that week.

He dreaded going to school. I dreaded sending him there.

He was bored. (Remember the brilliance?) When he wasn’t struggling to understand what was going on around him, he was twiddling his thumbs, killing time, and coming up with more and more creative ways to entertain himself…ways that were considered disobedient and unacceptable by his teachers. He was in trouble constantly. School wasn’t working for him, and I had no recourse…until a friend recommended the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

With the Tennessee Virtual Academy, we’ve been able to make incredible gains in his behavior. Some of it has come with maturity. Some of it has come because I’ve been able to see what is causing the issues he has and work through them with him one step at a time. Some has come because his days are no longer filled with sitting, standing in line, waiting for the rest of his class to catch up to wherever he is and then chaos while he is unable to understand what’s being asked of him. And some has come because we now have the time to sit down and discuss the how and the why of what is being asked of him, for as long as necessary, when it’s necessary and not hours after the fact, when he no longer remembers what triggered him to get in trouble to begin with.

None of that would have been possible if I had not had the means to bring him home, to keep him to a schedule and assignments assigned by an outside authority (a faceless enemy against whom we have been able to unite many times—it is not I who gives the dreaded writing assignments, but rather a nameless curriculum designer, and we simply do what we must in order to get through those assignments, because arguing with me or his teacher does not make them go away). It wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t had a system that allowed us to take days off when we needed them, rearranging our schedule to allow for a day when he had a fit and simply couldn’t work; and a system that allowed us to work when we pleased during the day, rather than being forced to sit in a desk from eight to three each day no matter what he was feeling or what he was doing.

My son is not the only person who has benefitted from the Tennessee Virtual Academy. Our story is, in fact, far from unique. If you read the success stories behind the Tennessee Virtual Academy, you hear stories of children who, for whatever reason, didn’t fit into a traditional classroom. They had ADD, or ADHD, or ODD. They had dyslexia, or low math skills, or had never been taught to read properly (what is it with the curriculum and insisting on teaching sight words without phonetics?). They had illnesses, injuries, or medical conditions that made it impossible for them to attend a traditional school. They were artists, athletes, or musicians, engaged in activities that took their time and their attention away from traditional studies and which required them to allot smaller portions of their days to their educations. They were bullied, some by students, others by the very teachers who were supposed to protect them.

There are dozens of stories, perhaps even hundreds of stories, each as individual and special as the child behind the story. Each of them tells of a student who would have been lost without the advantages offered by the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

I am a licensed teacher. If the need arose, I have the ability to traditionally homeschool my children, including, if necessary, designing curriculum from scratch. I have access to a used bookstore that provides materials inexpensively, and enough of a budget to allow that, if I had to. I prefer not to. I’m an English teacher, with a minor in history that, to be honest, I’ve used very sparingly since my graduation. I’m fairly comfortable with the biology/psychology end of science, but less comfortable with chemistry. I’m not comfortable with math. I can do it; I can’t always explain it clearly. Without a system like the Tennessee Virtual Academy, I wouldn’t have been comfortable taking the steps to bring my children home to learn, and might never have done it.

What about other parents? Parents who don’t have the advantages I do? Parents who have never learned how to write a lesson, who aren’t comfortable with the curriculum beyond early elementary school, who don’t have access to the same information and resources that I do? Homeschooling is easier if it’s begun in early elementary school—kindergarten, first grade, certainly no later. Then, it becomes a pattern, and the parent’s capability grows along with the child’s.

What about parents who discover when their child is in third, fourth, fifth grade or later that something isn’t working in the public school system, that their child needs to come home for some reason—for any of the reasons already discussed above? What about parents who have to work, and can’t be available to actively teach their child through the day? The responsibilities of a Learning Coach are many and varied, but they tend not to be as demanding as constructing and actively teaching curriculum to a child singlehandedly.

What about parents who can not afford to join homeschooling co-ops and associations—whose only resources are a few friends online and a handful of websites recommended by someone who has done this longer than they have?

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with traditional homeschooling—but for many families, for many different reasons, that simply isn’t an option. Unfortunately, for many of the families who found an educational home with TNVA, traditional homeschooling will be the only choice left.

If their students are learning poorly in a classroom taught by a licensed teacher, who presumably knows what he or she is doing, with state-mandated lessons constructed by people who design curriculum for a living, then how are they going to learn when Mom becomes the only teacher, curriculum designer, authority? How are they going to learn when they no longer have access to a teacher who knows how to properly complete those math problems, or how to write a research paper, or how to diagram a sentence?

Many of the parents whose children are essentially being un-enrolled from the Tennessee Virtual Academy are now long past the point when they would have purchased homeschooling curriculums, chosen materials, purchased books. They have missed out on the sales and exchanges, the open enrollments, the recruitment days for homeschooling associations. They’re sitting on the very edge of beginning a new school year…and they have nothing but a few boxes full of materials that they have no idea what to do with and a school that’s telling them, “Oh, I’m sorry, but the state says we can’t give you this opportunity.”

Some of those students will return to the public schools that weren’t working for them to begin with—and understand, this is not a good option for most of those students. I have never met any of them, know none of them even by their stories, but I don’t doubt it in the slightest for one simple reason: parents do not seek out an alternative schooling method when the one that they have is working.

They seek out alternatives when something is wrong. When a child is being bullied. When a child is failing. When a child is sick. They seek out alternatives when a child doesn’t fit in, or has behavioral issues incompatible with a traditional classroom, or is, for whatever reason, afraid to go to school.

They seek out alternatives when homeschooling is no longer the best option for the family—when the curriculum is too expensive, too confusing, too confining. When the parent is no longer able to adequately explain their weaker subjects. When they want a state education for their child without the dangers inherent in attending a brick and mortar school—whatever those might be.

They don’t seek out alternatives just because they looked up one day and decided that they didn’t feel like hauling their kids to school every day anymore.

Don’t be confused. Virtual schooling is not convenient. With the current class connect schedule, parents tie down not only their children but themselves for the bulk of the morning. There are testing days. Lessons which must be completed and turned in. Assignments which need to be mailed to the teacher. There will be days when there are computer issues, or a child simply isn’t understanding a lesson, when the parent devotes their entire day to dealing with those issues and no others, leaving the home in disarray, dinner uncooked, other children begging for attention.

It is a valid and necessary opportunity for many students…and for many of those students, this year, it has been taken away.

My students are safe. We’ve been with the Tennessee Virtual Academy for a long time; unless they shut it down entirely, our enrollment remains secure.

But what of the other students?

I can not help but feel that much of the attack against the Tennessee Virtual Academy is against not TNVA itself, but against K12—a private institution that has, thus far, provided the curriculum for the school. Many government officials would rather all of the curriculum, all of the choices, be made by individuals employed by the state, and the fact that a for-profit organization has been chosen to provide those materials for the thousand-odd students currently enrolled in TNVA is an issue for them. Through this vendetta, it is not the private organization—which also provides curriculum to a number of other states, many of them quite successfully—that is suffering.

It’s the students.

It’s the ten-year-old boy who has been bullied every day that he’s ever gone to a brick and mortar school, who truly believed that this year, he was going to escape his bullies at last.

It’s the thirteen-year-old girl who has been sick for the last year. It’s stress causing her stomach problems, and the doctors know it, but some days, she’s so sick in the mornings that she just sits in the car and cries on her way to school. She’s better in the afternoons. She can learn then—but that’s not when brick and mortar schools are open.

It’s the eight-year-old who is still having trouble learning to read because no one has the time to sit down with him and work with him individually.

It’s the eighth grader from a failing school (perhaps in the Memphis district, where many two-parent families have one parent who works solely to send their children to a private school in order to avoid the public school districts) who has been passed on year after year in spite of her failing test scores, who, this year, might finally have had a real opportunity to learn.

Those are the ones who suffer.

Opponents of the Tennessee Virtual Academy cite test scores as the reason why the school should be held back—test scores that have not yet even been released this year. They gloss over the reality that, with several years at the school, student scores do improve. They ignore, again, the reality that parents do not seek an alternative educational method for their students when the current one is working. They don’t ask what other issues are causing low test scores.

A child who is chronically ill may not necessarily perform well on standardized tests. A child who has ongoing behavior problems may not perform well on standardized tests (my son was escorted out of his writing assessment last year—he scored 2’s across the board, not because he is not capable of better, but because he was in a new situation and failed to understand what was expected of him). A child who began the year two, three, even four years behind is not going to be able to catch up on all of their educational gaps between August and April—but over the course of years, with their education improved and changed by the advantages of a virtual school, their scores come up.

It’s not an overnight process.

It’s not an overnight process when a child who has always previously been enrolled in a failing school moves into a successful district for the first time. It’s not an overnight process when a child who has been bullied is finally in a safe place, where it’s okay for him or her to learn and display that learning. It’s not an overnight process when a child who is chronically ill is finally able to attend school on a regular basis instead of being out sick more often than he or she is present.

Parents don’t seek out alternative educational methods when the normal ones are working.

All of these variables, the state fails to take into account. They look at hard, fast numbers—and only the numbers that suit them, not the ones that show the school’s improvements, the students’ improvements. They ignore the human element.

They ignore the very children that they claim to be defending.

My children are safe. They can keep their school. But what of those who can’t?