HomeThe Virtual CrunchIndustryTennessee approves new virtual school for Anderson County

Tennessee approves new virtual school for Anderson County

The Tennessee Department of Education has approved a new virtual school for the Anderson County school system.

Called Anderson County Innovation Academy, the school will allow students in grades three through 12 to take classes from home through one of its programs, the Anderson County Online Learning Academy (ACOLA).This new virtual school was one of 29 new virtual schools the state of Tennessee approved for the upcoming school year.

Jeff Harshbarger, ACOLA principal, said residents of Anderson County, including the Anderson County part of Oak Ridge, should apply by next Wednesday, Aug. 4, if they want to be part of the program. The deadline for out of zone applications from other counties, he said, has already passed for the upcoming school year.

“To me, this is about more ways to serve more kids,” Harshbarger said.

He explained that not all children are successful spending time physically at school, and the school system does not want to “fit them all into one box.”

Ryan Sutton, communications director for Anderson County Schools, expressed similar thoughts.

“Anderson County Schools is about meeting the needs of every student, every day,” he said.

Sutton said the school is available for students whose family members are especially susceptible to COVID-19. It allows for students to attend school from home without leaving the school system.

The ACOLA program, Harshbarger said, dates back 10 years, before the current recognition by the state and also before the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many school systems to add online programs.

To sign up for the program, you can apply online at; call Harshbarger at (865) 755-3115; or email him at

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to the virtual half of a senior government class during his visit to Anderson County High School in Clinton, Tenn., on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. Gov.  Gov. Lee visited Knox and Anderson County to check-in on what in person learning looks like during the coronavirus pandemic.

Oak Ridge Schools superintendent Bruce Borchers with vice Chairwoman Laura McLean

What about Oak Ridge?

Oak Ridge Schools is a separate school district from Anderson County Schools and will not have a virtual option this school year.

Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said there will be no relationship between the Anderson County Innovations Academy and Oak Ridge Schools.

Last year, Oak Ridge Schools had an online program called ConnectOR, due to the pandemic. The program allowed parents and guardians who didn’t want their children in school to keep them at home.

However, this school year, which began Wednesday, July 28, students won’t have that option. Borchers told The Oak Ridger the state will only allow for online programs if a school system sets up a “separate standalone virtual school” which Oak Ridge Schools has not done.

“Based on the size of Oak Ridge Schools, creating a standalone virtual school is cost prohibitive and could potentially reduce the face-to-face opportunities that are of great value to Oak Ridge students and teacher,” Borchers stated.

Anderson County’s program

The designation as a school, Harshbarger said, means coming up with a school logo and mascot.

“We’re excited about that,” he said.

Harshbarger and Sutton gave details about the different programs for elementary, middle and high school students.

Grades three through five, Harshbarger said, involve Zoom conferences with teachers.

“They’ve got to have that connection all the time,” he said of these younger students.

For middle school students and up, the program adds an online curriculum separate from the Zoom sessions from the company Odysseyware.

The school website states it offers “high quality college prep online curriculum (Odysseyware) at no cost to parents,” “highly-qualified, certified teachers available for tutoring at no charge” and a diploma from a state of Tennessee accredited school system so credits are accepted at colleges and universities. Sutton said the program even has its own, in-person graduation ceremony.

The program includes options for on-campus classes such as band, ROTC, multimedia and engineering.

It offers free ACT testing. A Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) math class for seniors with low ACT math scores, in partnership with Roane State Community College, is part of the program in lieu of remedial math classes in college.

Anderson County Innovation Academy also runs another, separate program in addition to its online classes. Called Bridge Academy, it allows students who are behind on classes to catch up and allows for classroom time, as well as one-on-one work with teachers.

Virtual Schools across the state

In Tennessee, public virtual school students are measured against the same academic standards as students in traditional public school settings, the Tennessee Department of Education website states.

“As we head into the new school year, educators and school and district leaders throughout the state are focused on ensuring student achievement and serving the needs of all students in their communities,” said Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in a news release. “Last school year, districts responded to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing additional operating models and learning formats to ensure that families had options and students could continue learning with their classmates and teachers when out of school buildings. While research shows that students benefit most from in-person classroom instruction, districts are ensuring families who prefer a virtual education setting for their students have those options and can continue to make the best choices for their children.”

Ben Pounds is a staff reporter for The Oak Ridger. Call him at (865) 441-2317 and follow him on Twitter @Bpoundsjournal.

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