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Will TNVA Be Able to Keep Its Students?

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Tomorrow, the Union County School Board will hold an emergency meeting to vote on the fate of the 626 students who legally enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy for the first time for the 2014-2015 school year. This is in response to Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s demand that those students be un-enrolled immediately, a demand that was not issued until two weeks prior to the beginning of the school year.

This edict leaves many parents in desperate straits. The Tennessee Virtual Academy is a valuable resource for children who do not learn in a traditional manner: children who are physically ill or disabled; children with learning disabilities that make it difficult for them to participate in a regular classroom; children who are bullied, or mistreated, or otherwise do not fit in when they are left in a regular classroom. Their stories have poured out over the Tennessee Department of Education Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TennesseeEducation), the change.org petition page (https://www.change.org/petitions/union-county-school-board-don-t-cancel-enrollment-of-600-tnva-students), and other locations. There are students who are from disadvantaged school districts, where they don’t have access to proper materials and, often, decent teachers. There are students who participate in sports or other activities that place high demands on their time, who benefit from being able to schedule school around their passions. There are students who are physically unable to attend school for health reasons, but whose parents are still passionate about allowing them to receive a good education.

And then there are the stories that touch your heart the most: stories of children that were failed by the public school system.

There are the students with severe ADD or ADHD, who were incapable of learning with all of the distractions in a brick and mortar school, but who have excelled during their years at TNVA.

There are students who were badly bullied, who came home daily in tears, who were contemplating ending their own lives, self-harm, and other negative options, who have now found joy in life and enjoy going to school again.

There are students who were mistreated by their teachers, or who went unnoticed in spite of their many problems, who have received the individual attention they needed through the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

All of this, Commissioner Huffman would have thrown out…because of test scores.

State testing is certainly one measure of knowledge gained throughout the course of a school year. It lets the state, the parents, and the teachers know that they are covering the same concepts across the board, so that every child is receiving, if not an identical education, then at least a somewhat equal one. However, in many instances, state testing is a better measure of what the teacher has done throughout the year than what the students have learned—and even that is somewhat arbitrary.

There is a popular cartoon that made the rounds some time back that shows a number of animals lined up in front of a passionless examiner. There’s a giraffe, a monkey, and a fish; and they’re told that, in order to present a fair and unbiased test, all of them must complete the same one: climbing the tree. Obviously, not all of the examinees are going to be able to do any such thing.

This is very true of our students as well. Some, like the fish, are stuck in their bowls, unable to even contemplate climbing the tree. These are students with severe learning disabilities or deficits, for whom the concept of even taking the test is intimidating. These students can be encouraged to come out of their “bowls” as the years progress, but it’s going to take time—certainly more than any one teacher can accomplish throughout the course of the year.

Then there’s the cat. The cat can probably make it up into the tree, but she’s not all that comfortable going to the very top. These are students who have had experiences at school in the past that have taught them that it is not a safe place. They have been bullied, or overlooked, or even mistreated by their teachers. They want to learn; they are able to learn; but they need a new environment to stretch themselves and learn how to learn before they can truly accomplish those goals.

Birds don’t have any trouble soaring to the top of the tree. They don’t get there the way the other kids do, though; and as state testing becomes more and more rigid (including one particular test that looks not only at the final answer, but at how the student arrived at that answer), they find themselves trapped down on the ground, unable to spread their wings and soar in spite of their obvious capability.

And even the monkey is at a disadvantage if this happens to be the first year he’s ever seen a tree.

These are the students for whom schools like TNVA are designed. They’re the ones who need it. They need the “different” nature of this program, no matter what their reasons may be—and the reasons are as varied as the children who live with them.

These are the students that Commissioner Huffman would deny the opportunity to participate in a school that truly works for them.

The law states that every school-age student in the United States must be provided with a free and appropriate public education. For many of these students, the Tennessee Virtual Academy is the best possible approach. It is not “appropriate” to force a bullied child to attend school every day with her tormentors. It is not “appropriate” to force a child with ADD or ADHD to sit in a desk for hours at a time with no reprieve, punished every time his very nature takes hold and forces him to move. It is not “appropriate” to force a child with a learning disability to move ahead in the curriculum with his peers, even though he may well already be units or even years behind.

But this is what Commissioner Huffman would consign them to—the 626 students whose parents have already chosen to enroll them in the Tennessee Virtual Academy this year, and all of the students who would come after them.

For the moment, he is allowing the academy’s virtual doors to remain open. He posits that, because first-year test scores are the current problem, first-year enrollment should be decreased.

He fails to consider all of the reasons why first-year test scores would be so low.

Consider the children already described above whose parents have chosen the Tennessee Virtual Academy as the best possible educational option for them. What have these students already gone through? How are their current test scores? Are they succeeding, or are they already falling off the charts, numbers that are ignored because their peers score high enough to keep the averages up? A child who enters middle school with a reading or math level at the second or third grade level will not be able to bring that level up to standard in the course of a matter of weeks or months—but over years, she will. A child who has fallen far behind will not be able to regain that ground overnight—but over years, he will.

Obviously, the Tennessee Virtual Academy is showing success with its students. It is not intended as a temporary solution or a stop-gap measure, but rather as a schooling solution for the students who need it. Most students won’t enroll for a single year, or half a year, and then return to a traditional brick and mortar classroom, as is evidenced by the more than nine hundred students who are re-enrolling in the school this year. They’re coming to stay.

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