The Blount County Schools virtual programs are showing real growth.

The Preferred Flex Academy enrolled 30 elementary students during the past school year, is approaching 70 now and could reach 100 next semester.

The Future Ready Academy grew from 35 to 59 secondary students, and during the past school year, 106 students earned their diploma through STAGE, the School of Technologically Accelerating Graduation at Everett.

All three programs are housed at the Samuel Everett School of Innovation, long home to the district’s alternative program for students suspended from other schools, now called AIM (Achieve Improve Mature) Academy.

“This is probably our most rapidly growing school community,” BCS Director Rob Britt told school board members of the new programs during their retreat last month.

School board members already are referring to Everett as the third Blount County high school.

“I view this right now as one of three options for high school in Blount County Schools with more to come,” Justin Ridge, the district’s coordinator of innovative programs, said during an interview at Everett last week. He’s also working on a proposal for an Eagleton College and Career Academy, to be located within Eagleton Middle School.

“I don’t know how big we’ll get,” Ridge said, but the emphasis has been on making the programs better, not just bigger, with adjustments since the last school year to offer students and families more support.

About half of the students in Preferred Flex and Future Ready have come from other BCS campuses, while the rest have been a mix of students from other districts and families that tried home schooling but wanted the additional support the new public school option provides.

“These are kids we could have lost,” school board Chair Debbie Sudhoff said during the retreat.

For some families the virtual schools allow the flexibility for students to pursue activities ranging from acting to gymnastics. Donny Anderson, BCS coordinator of data, evaluation,and assessment, explained to the board members that through Future Ready his daughter was able to complete a French II honors class while still competing in rowing. “I appreciate your support of this as a parent,” he told them during the retreat.

The innovative programs monitor when students log on to online work, measure their progress through assessments and offer support through teachers and administrators. The 25 certified staff members include 12 virtual instructors, who may be full-time teachers at other schools who connect with students in the innovative programs during planning periods or other hours.

“Our kids have access to real teachers who are in the classroom doing it, plus go the extra mile to work with these kids,” Ridge explained.

“I know there are a lot of virtual schools that are popping up,” he said. “We’re not like any other one because we’re local and we have such high expectations.”

Flex and families

Key to Preferred Flex is families that work with the students, but who have support from the school.

“We’re looking for parents who are committed to their child’s education,” said Tom Loud, coordinator of the program for kindergarten through grade six. “I meet with every family on a monthly basis to provide support.”

“Open house for the Flex Academy looks more like a professional development training,” Anderson told the board. “Those parents are not coming to see pictures on the wall,” but to be coached by the staff.

While most of the learning is online, students do come to campus each week.

In the Future Ready Academy, Ridge said, “We make all students come in to do math. We also have them come in to do writing. We think it’s important that they have an opportunity for feedback.”

“Math is one of the most intimidating classes to parents,” noted instructor Lynnette Cottrell.

Future Ready operates like a “flipped” classroom for math, where students receive instruction online at home and then work problems and receive support when they come to campus. Students also are working on a mastery model, so if they score low on a concept they come in for remediation on just that one standard.

“The kids really like it because they’re in control of their learning,” said Shonda Hensley, coordinator of the secondary virtual programs. “So it’s not like getting a 65 and you’re all upset and the next day the teacher starts the next lesson. You get to take time to really learn the material, because with math, building on top of itself that’s important.”

“We’ve watched kids mature ... take control of their education,” Cottrell said.

“We’re working on a lot of life skills that they’ll need going forward in college too, as far as communications,” Hensley said, “like emailing their teachers and asking questions when they need to, knowing when to ask for help.”

Middle school students come to campus for weekly science labs, and older students can meet with a retired teacher once a week for coaching for the ACT exam.

Everett has a case manager for special education students and has worked with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association so that students enrolled at the Future Ready Academy can play sports through Heritage or William Blount high school.

The alternative programs also are working with Heritage and William Blount to ensure students can pursue programs of study not available on the Everett campus, such as ROTC.

STAGE

BCS has been providing transportation from Heritage and William Blount for some students to complete state diplomas through STAGE.

“These are our students who just currently maybe lack some credits, they simply do not fit in, they may not want to fit in to a traditional comprehensive high school, so we have a place for them now,” Britt told the board. Some students choose to stay at Everett in STAGE after completing a term in AIM.

Even at AIM, the educators are fine-tuning, backing off from a primarily online instruction model to a hybrid that provides more teacher interaction in core subjects, such as English and math.

“Everything we do here is a continuous process of improvement,” Ridge said. “We’ve seen students thrive here that may not have had that opportunity in traditional school, for various reasons, and not just academically.”

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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