Williamson County Schools announced last month virtual school Discovery K-8 would be closing ahead of the next academic year due to low enrollment.
According to district administration, 82 students applied for enrollment in the school by the March 20 deadline. At the end of the first month of this school year, there were over 340 students enrolled.
“These (numbers) simply aren’t enough students for a K-8 school to be viable,” WCS wrote on the school’s news site.
Discovery is one of two virtual schools established last year in response to a new Tennessee law requiring virtual schools to be separate from zoned schools.
“K-8 online was substantially more expensive than our regular on-campus given the enrollment numbers we received,” WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said at a meeting with County Commissioners on April 4. “We just didn’t have enough students in each class for us to even hire full-time teachers in some of the (classes).”
Vanguard High School, the district’s virtual school for grades 9-12, is scheduled to stay open with over 140 full-time students and over 4,600 “semester seats” requested by high school students opting to take one or more virtual courses while attending their zoned schools.
Discovery K-8 parents react
Upon hearing the news, dozens of parents united in a Facebook group called “Save Discovery Virtual.” Over a dozen of those parents reached out to The Tennessean hoping to advocate on behalf of keeping the school open.
Several said they were shocked to hear the news so soon after they’d made the decision to re-enroll in the remote option. They also said the schools have evolved beyond just a response to COVID-19.
Third grade parent Rajeev Nair said with less than a year in the books, the small enrollment could be positive and the cost could be an investment in the education of tech-savvy kids and in an added tool for the growing district.
Nair said Discovery experience was an improvement from the start of the pandemic when virtual school was challenging for younger grades. Outcomes of the new set-up should influence closure, not enrollment numbers, he said.
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“We are making decisions solely based on the number of people who are enrolled. We have not looked into the TNReady or TSAT scores,” he said. “How did the online students score compared to the students who took class in the building last year? Was it the same? Worse or better?”
As a former executive for an online education system, he believes the district could have marketed the school better with the goal of gradual growth.
David McCrea-Dastur, a parent of two who attend Discovery, said his child who has an individualized education plan and ADHD has thrived in virtual school with more space to focus, less opportunity to be bullied and the ability for a parent to be nearby as to makeshift tutor.
“The biggest part of the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004) is to provide an environment for children of all abilities or disabilities to be provided a successful environment that does not handicap an individual,” he wrote in an email. “Removing this environment deters from the best possible environment for all students to be successful; catering to the masses.”
Kristy Branson, a parent to fourth and seventh graders, said while many believe online school might cause a loss of social connection and physical activity, she’s found the opposite.
“I can see (parents’) concern and their point, but the teachers and staff here have gone above and beyond to offer clubs of all sorts that the kids can participate in, not to mention the students are able to participate in any before or after school clubs or sports/extracurriculars at their zoned school,” she wrote in an email.
WCS parents Rebecca Hellemans and Sarah Riebau said Discovery has fit the needs of their families.
Hellemans, mom to a third grader, is an aerial arts instructor who works most afternoons and evenings. Her husband, an entertainer, is on the road.
Discovery K-8 allows her child to attend school without any interruptions or pick-up needs, and she can avoid spending time at home alone. Attending their zoned school would pull Hellemans away from work.
“I have a child who is really bright. She’s got all A’s and B’s, but I do feel like she’s got some anxieties, especially in social situations when she’s taking tests,” Hellemans said. “She just does so much better at home with our pets, in her own environment, in her own settings than her. A lot of those pressures are off of her, and she can really focus.”
For Riebau, a parent of both third and seventh graders, the school gives her family some peace of mind about the possibility of another COVID-19 variant, as well as a more calm and connected school experience.
“If we have to send them to school next year, while we’re willing to do that, there could be another variant and then we’re stuck with the situation of do we send our kids in and feel uneasy about their health or do we pull them and try to find another option,” Riebau said.
What’s to eat?
Golden and the WCS Board of Education will discuss next steps for Discovery K-8 at the board’s April 14 work session and April 18 meeting, which are both open to the public. Golden plans to recommend closure of the school at those meetings.
Board members will vote on the decision April 18.
According to WCS, the district’s human resources department is working with Discovery’s staff to transition them to other positions for the upcoming school year.
Golden said 26 people make up the virtual school’s staff. The roster featured on its website includes a principal, an assistant principal, 21 teachers across nine grade levels and several subjects, a counselor, an attendance secretary and a K-12 bookkeeper.
In the meantime, while parents are making their voices heard they’re also exploring other options for their children. They’re weighing sending them to in-person school or finding other online public school options, like the state’s online school or those at other districts like Bristol City Schools or Rutherford County Schools.
Anika Exum is a reporter covering Williamson County at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach her from ella at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-347-7313 or on Twitter @aniexum.
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