Like many schools across the country, Tullahoma City Schools (TCS) in Tullahoma, TN, were forced to make significant adjustments during the 2020–21 school year due to the pandemic. After moving to virtual learning, Tullahoma High School (THS) teachers noticed an unexpected phenomenon. Some students who were typically disengaged while attending in-person classes were now logging in late at night or in the early morning hours to complete and submit their assignments. This forced us to consider the reality that the way school had been historically run might be part of the problem for struggling students. We realized that these late-night scholars were choosing to engage in school when they were physically and mentally ready. 

Going Virtual

When THS reopened in August 2020, students had the option to attend classes either in-person or virtually. Teachers taught both in-person and remote students simultaneously. Though this approach was the simplest logistical solution, it brought many challenges. 

Our district administrators soon realized a significant number of students were withdrawing from THS to enroll in online home schools. 

To address this need, I was hired as the district’s first director of virtual learning in March 2021 and began building Tullahoma’s eighth school: Tullahoma Virtual Academy (TVA). Along with Catherine Stephens, TCS’s director of schools, we identified four guiding principles:

  1. Start small. Go slow.
  2. Offer flexibility and student choice in all things.
  3. Provide high-quality content.
  4. Learning virtually does not mean learning alone.

Why Not Offer Options?

Student autonomy and flexible scheduling options were at the heart of the dialogue regarding the creation of TVA. Simply offering a virtual pathway for acquiring graduation credits wasn’t enough. We developed three pathways for students: 

  • Full-Time: Students engage exclusively in online classes with the understanding that not all courses are available as virtual options, and courses with significant lab or hands-on components may require a hybrid format. These students enroll through TVA.
  • Flex: Students can customize their schedules with any combination of in-person and virtual classes. Students enroll in the school where they have the majority of their classes.
  • Plus-One: Students are able to take one additional class per semester. Plus-one classes are intended to help students earn credits at an accelerated rate to graduate early and to enable students to explore additional elective offerings.

Finding Students

Observing the “start small” principle, we limited enrollment to 50 students. We understood that poor grades and attendance could indicate that a student is in need of an alternative school, so we focused on finding the right students, not just those with the best grades. 

Students were then asked to express interest by emailing me. Before sending out an application, I reviewed each student’s current grades and attendance. Based on our experience with virtual learning during the 2020–21 school year, we knew that students who did not make learning a daily priority were not successful with the virtual format. We also had concerns about our ability to adequately serve students in significant need of credit recovery. Therefore, students with excessive credit deficits or absences were eliminated in this step. The rest were emailed an application. The application included questions for parents and students regarding the motivation for being a virtual student, appropriate home space for learning, internet access, and learning support at home. Students with approved applications were then scheduled for an in-person interview with me to determine the student’s potential as a virtual learner. Selected students were notified by email and sent a follow-up message to gather scheduling information. As digital communication is a daily part of a virtual learner’s life, all communication regarding the application process was sent via email. 

Curriculum and Teachers

TCS already had access to an online learning program that we had used for several years as a credit recovery tool. However, we wanted the quality of virtual instruction offered at TVA to equal that of the in-person classes, so we determined that TVA courses would offer asynchronous classes designed and taught by current THS educators. Teachers were recruited based on their professional reputation and demonstrated digital competency. As these educators were working for TVA on an adjunct basis outside of the regular school day, they were compensated by stipends in addition to their contracted salaries. 

The TVA Café

During the planning stages for TVA, the district leadership team and I visited existing virtual schools in Tennessee. A common component for these schools is an on-site learning lab at their brick-and-mortar counterparts. These labs are intended for students engaging in a combination of in-person and virtual classes. They utilize the lab during their open periods without having to leave campus. 

THS is a 65-year-old building and had no available space to be repurposed for a learning lab. Dr. Stephens envisioned an off-site space where students could visit throughout the day to do schoolwork, meet classmates or teachers, socialize, and, most importantly, engage with other humans. Virtual learning should not mean learning alone. This idea led to the concept of a coffee shop space with flexible seating and, of course, coffee and other refreshments. 

Innovative High School Model Grant

To pay for our new TVA Café, I applied for a Tennessee-​funded Innovative High School Model (IHSM) Grant. As part of the grant requirements, we needed to show an innovative partnership with local employers and community-based partners to provide students with the mentorship, training, and competencies vital to workplace success. So, I reached out to the City of Tullahoma, Motlow Community College, and Tennessee College of Applied Technology and established a plan to create the Tullahoma Career Pathways Initiative (TCPI). This initiative provides career education, mentor opportunities, internships, and collaborative postsecondary learning opportunities for Tullahoma students.

Tullahoma was chosen for the IHSM grant, which awarded $759,000 to help build the TVA Café and support the development of the TCPI. Additionally, the grant allowed us to create two additional positions: a career and graduation coach and a video production studio manager. 

Now and to the Future

We’ve learned so much at TVA and are working on how we will change our strategy for greater success. There have been challenges. We’ve learned that remediation in the virtual setting is a challenge, as asynchronous virtual courses are designed with the assumption that students possess the prerequisite mastery of concepts needed for each course. Because students and teachers may only connect in real time once per week during their required live assessments, identifying and addressing a student’s needs may take longer than in a traditional classroom setting. To mitigate the immediate effects of this challenge, we hired a math tutor to hold office hours in the TVA Café two to three times per week. This service is free to students and has already made a tremendous impact. 

Moving forward, we plan to implement proficiency exams for students taking a math or English class. The resulting data will help us customize our courses for each student. Though the primary courses will not change, students can be assigned supplemental units to strengthen their learning and be prioritized for tutoring access.

The TCPI is making progress. We took a leap with the inception of our career education podcast, “Two Mikes and a Guest.” In this series, our career and graduation coach, Mike Young, and our production studio manager, Michael Holiday, interview a variety of professionals to learn about their jobs and the path they took to their careers. The life lessons being shared in each episode are simply incredible. Currently, the catalog of career descriptions is small, but the published episodes are already a great resource for all students. 

For the 2022–23 school year, TVA plans to grow to 100 students. In year three, we look to expand virtual services to the middle grades. By year five, we expect to offer virtual options for students K–12. In the months that we have been in operation, we have learned that frequent communication and remaining open to all forms of feedback are essential to the success of TVA. All stakeholders understand and embrace the fact that TVA is new and a work in progress. The key is owning our mistakes, making things right, and moving forward. It’s a great example to our students of how we continue to learn and grow in life. 

Greg English is the director of virtual learning at Tullahoma Virtual Academy in Tullahoma, TN. He is also the 2021 Tennessee Assistant Principal of the Year.