Established in 2012, The Tennessee Online Public School is the only virtual high school that supports students on a statewide level.
Based in Bristol, Tennessee, TOPS was made possible by the Virtual Schools Act of 2011. Principal Jason Horne designed the school and has led it since its founding. TOPS is currently the highest performing virtual school in Tennessee with a budget of $485,000.
“We don’t have a target student,” said Horne. “But our niche has been students who need a flexible schedule.”
TOPS uses an online learning management system called Canvas to interact with its students. On the site, students are able to watch videos made by their teachers, complete course assignments and keep track of their progress. They are also equipped with a Google Drive to hold all of their files. Students are held accountable through weekly due dates, which determine their course grades as well as their attendance.
“We still get some truancy issues,” said Horne. “And we always have procrastination issues.”
Students are able to apply online and submit a one-time application fee of $125. The acceptance rate at TOPS is approximately 85 percent, and roughly 250 students are served each year. This year, TOPS is expected to have a graduation rate of 100 percent.
“We do require students to be on track to graduate on time,” said Horne. “And we have determined that students coming in with a 2.5 or better are typically responsible enough to handle the independent required by online education.”
Students who attend a brick-and-mortar school are also invited to apply as dual-enrollment students.
Not all of a TOPS student’s time is spent at home online. TOPS is NCAA approved for Division I sports as well. The school co-ops with Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tennessee so that some students may pursue an athletic career.
TOPS also supports student-led clubs and organizations. Students vote whether or not to have a prom, and an in-person graduation ceremony concludes each year. TOPS requires that each student complete 25 community service hours annually in order to keep them involved in their own communities. The students also are given points for attending social events.
“You don’t have to sit through things you don’t like,” said Horne. “You don’t have to put up with nonsense from people. You don’t have to wake up at a certain time, or be somewhere from 7:30-2:30, Monday through Friday. You don’t have to worry about what someone thinks about [you].”
However, there are some hands-on opportunities that students are unable to receive from an online platform. Electives like welding, culinary arts and agriculture must be accessed elsewhere.
Additionally, students are unable to take their End of Course tests online without supervision. They must travel to either Bristol, Knoxville, Nashville or Memphis to sign in and sit through the exam in person.
“This year, we’re doing paper and pencil tests,” said Horne. “Next year and beyond, our tests will be administrated on computer [at the four testing centers].”
In the past, TOPS has scored in level five for growth and has the highest level of achievement in the state.
Horne explained the independence and drive that a student must have to succeed in his school.
“Nobody is going to hold your hand and tell you to get your work in,” said Horne. “That happens after you’ve already not gotten it in. Nobody is going to reach out to make friends with you because they notice you’re lonely. Nobody is going to shame you for not showering.”