Ed. commissioner asks Virtual Academy to limit enrollment because of low student achievement

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KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The state has given the Union County school system until Friday to decide whether it will enroll an additional 626 students into an online school that has been heavily criticized for its low student scores.

The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/1z8y5hR) reports that state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman recommended in a recent letter to schools superintendent Jimmy Carter that the district consider limiting enrollment to students previously attending the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

Huffman said for the third consecutive year, students in the program have shown low achievement in testing.

"As we have discussed, a close examination of the data shows the school's challenges rest primarily with the school's ability to demonstrate effectiveness with first-year students," Huffman wrote.

"While the school has improved its performance with students attending the school for multiple years, it has not yet demonstrated the capability to have a positive educational impact on new students, which creates a mutual concern and I believe leads both of us to consider the best options for the district, the school and its students going forward."

In 2011, Union County Schools contracted with K12 Inc. to create the academy for students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade across the state. K12 Inc., a national provider of online school programs, provides the curriculum.

But since its inception, the school has had low performance on test scores. Its most recent scores haven't been released publicly.

In Carter's response to the state, he noted that as of July 10 — the last day enrollments were accepted — the academy had 1,602 students who had applied, been accepted and enrolled for the school year that begins Aug. 4. Of those students, 976 are returning students.

Noting rules of the state Board of Education, Carter said the district did not believe it was authorized "to 'de-enroll' any students who have applied, been accepted and are enrolled as of July 10, 2014."

However, Huffman responded in a subsequent letter that the district did have the authority to limit enrollment in the academy for students previously attending the school.

"The intent of the cited state board rule is to ensure that once students are enrolled and taking courses, a virtual school cannot remove the student from attendance for reasons that may not be in the best interest of the student," he wrote. "Furthermore, (law) allows the state to require (a schools system) to close a virtual school."

Huffman told Carter that the school district can seek a waiver, but it is "imperative" that the decision is made as soon as possible so the school system can communicate with the students and parents that could be affected.

The Union County school board was scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday night.

Meanwhile, an online petition has formed by individuals opposed to the commissioner's recommendation.

"This is about respecting the choice parents make for their children," said Holly Wooten, co-chair of a group promoting greater school choice across the state.

Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com

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