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Last Upated: July 27, 2021
Each spring, parents face one of the biggest decisions they can make for their child’s future: What school environment will their child will spend about 1,000 hours in next year?
Making that decision with confidence starts with knowing what options you have; you may have more school choices than you realize! Understanding these options can help you find a school where your child grows and learns to the best of their ability. Tennessee families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.
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Most Tennessee families choose traditional public schools, which are operated by school districts, free to attend, open to all students, and funded by taxpayers. Did you know that, on average, Tennessee spends $9,868 per public school student each year?
In Tennessee, a bill passed in spring 2021 will require all school districts to create open enrollment policies by fall 2022. Open enrollment refers to whether parents can send their children to any public school, regardless of where it is located. Parents wanting to transfer their child to a different public school than the one they are assigned should contact their local school district to explore their options. Open enrollment is an important way that parents have access to a broader variety of public schools.
Find out more about public schools in your state here: Tennessee’s Department of Education.
Tennessee has more than 100 public charter schools, many of them in Memphis. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and typically have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they have extra freedom to innovate with learning methods and are accountable to authorizing entities for student results.
Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a language immersion program or offering a rigorous, literacy-based curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system (like drawing random names out of a hat!) is usually used to determine admittance.
You can also choose magnet schools! Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as an International Baccalaureate program or the performing arts. A magnet school teaches all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. Tennessee has several magnet schools. For example, the Knox County School District, Metropolitan Nashville Public School District, Rutherford County School District, and Shelby County School District all offer magnet choices, among others. If your child learns well through diving deeply into a particular subject, a magnet school could be a good fit.
Tennessee families can also choose private schools. These nonpublic schools charge tuition and offer a unique learning environment that may be smaller in size, pass on a specific religious tradition, or provide a different curriculum than is available in your district school.
In Tennessee, students with special needs may be eligible for a publicly funded Individualized Education Account. Also, a pilot program in which Nashville and Memphis students whose families meet certain income guidelines could qualify for a state-funded voucher was set to launch by 2021, but was ruled unconstitutional. Additional funding may be available from other sources.
Don’t overlook virtual learning, which offers a uniquely flexible learning environment that meets a variety of family needs. Whether your child wants to accelerate learning or needs a quieter, stress-free environment in which to focus, you may be interested in trying online school.
For the 2021-2022 school year, Tennessee has 57 virtual schools, 29 of which are new ones! Virtual schools in Tennessee are overseen by school districts. While some virtual schools may be open only to in-district students, others (like Tennessee Virtual Academy and Tennessee Connections Academy) serve students statewide.
As of December 2020, Tennessee Connections Academy has seats available for grades K-11. Tennessee Virtual Academy has seats available for grades K-8.
At Tennessee Connections Academy, mid-year transfer students are accepted as long as the school’s enrollment cap is not met. Tennessee Virtual Academy also accepts students mid-school year; it sets dates for different cohorts of new students to start throughout the year.
Tennessee Connections Academy and Tennessee Virtual Academy do not typically provide technology and wifi, but families may be able to apply for technology based on financial need.
Families can also choose to homeschool. This option allows for high levels of customized learning and flexibility. All 50 states allow homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home.
In Tennessee, if you are an independent homeschool, it is required that you provide notice of intent to homeschool before the school year or upon choosing homeschool and annually thereafter. Formally withdrawing from public school is required in some districts and recommended for all districts. In the case that you decide to return to public school in the middle of the school year, your school principal will assess to determine grade level placement.
Tennessee offers funding assistance for students with special needs through the Special Needs Individualized Education Account Program.
Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it. Learn more about learning pods.
If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in Tennessee. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA here. Note that homeschooled students in Tennessee may still be eligible to participate in sports, activities, or classes at local public schools.
If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what Tennessee classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.
If your child is going to be enrolled in remote learning through your local public school and supervised by an adult in your learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. Keep in mind that you have multiple online learning options, including multiple permanent, full-time online schools that are available to students statewide.
For additional information about school choice in Tennessee, visit these resources:
National School Choice Week 2022 will take place January 23 – 29, 2022. We encourage all schools, homeschool groups, organizations and individuals to join the celebration. Check out ideas, inspiration, and more information!
Tennessee celebrated National School Choice Week 2021 with 861 virtual events and activities across the state. Click the button below to learn more about school choice in Tennessee.
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