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What started as a Niswonger Foundation program to expand course offerings for high school students in Northeast Tennessee, is now spreading across the State, increasing academic opportunities and providing flexibility in course scheduling for hundreds of students. 

Niswonger Online began with funding from a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant in 2011. The focus of this effort was to serve students in high-need, rural Northeast Tennessee high schools. “Developing and providing quality online curricular offerings ‘levels the playing field’ for our students,” states Dr. Nancy Dishner, President and CEO of the Niswonger Foundation. “Our goal is to ensure that the size or geographical location of our schools does not determine the ability for a student to have access to a robust curriculum that can best prepare him or her for postsecondary education and a successful career.”  

Over 15,000 course credits have been earned since Niswonger Online was established. This fall term, alone, the program is serving 624 students in 30 high schools across the State. “As a rural high school, the Niswonger Online courses have not only strengthened our course offerings but opened doors for our students,” said Dr. Catherine Edwards, assistant principal of Unicoi County High School. “Courses that we cannot possibly offer to our students in our brick and mortar building are now available.” 

Initially, this effort was designed to provide support for an enriched curriculum in the school systems served by the Niswonger Foundation in Northeast Tennessee.  Fundamental to the mission of the Niswonger Foundation is supporting educational opportunities in rural schools. A dedication to this mission, and a strong desire to position Tennessee as a national model for quality rural education, led to the Foundation reaching out to rural school systems across the State, allowing an opportunity for access for their students. Currently, students in Hardeman, Claibourne, Lauderdale, Haywood, Grainger and McMinn Counties are participating. A grant from the Care Foundation of America is assisting with support for this initiative. Additional partnerships are currently being planned.  A total of twenty-eight school systems are currently participating in Niswonger Online.

The program allows students to take classes during regular school hours or at the convenience of the students. Students can choose from 40 online course options, including Advanced Placement (AP), career/technical education (CTE), language arts, social studies, science, fine arts, math, physical education and world languages (French, Spanish and Latin). The program is supported by the Niswonger Foundation, the Consortium of Northeast Tennessee school systems, and the systems from across the State that have joined the effort.

The Niswonger Foundation has recently partnered with East Tennessee State University to offer online dual enrollment courses. Beginning in Spring 2019, students will be able to use Niswonger Online to take an array of courses from ETSU, earning both high school and college credit.  As many as 200 ETSU courses will be available by Summer 2019.  These dual enrollment opportunities are supportive of the State of Tennessee’s “Drive to 55” goal of seeing that every student has Early Post-Secondary Opportunities (EPSO’s).  

“The Niswonger Foundation has allowed me to take a class that has never been offered at my high school,” said an 11th grade student in the program. “I know this will help me when I start college, and I’m so thankful for that.”  A David Crockett High School student (Jonesborough) had a perfect score on the ACT exam.  He credited his success to having completed four Niswonger Online courses, including Latin I and II. 

Niswonger Online can serve any student, especially those who perform better in online settings, need to retake classes to graduate or want to take advanced classes to prepare them for careers or higher education.  “Not only is [my daughter] improving her GPA by retaking the course, she raised her ACT Math score by several points,” said one parent of a student taking geometry online. “Seeing her ACT score raise is proof to me that she is learning this skill.”  A school counselor credited the online program as positive intervention for a struggling student: “I believe that the alternative environment of online classes provided her with opportunity to be successful that didn’t exist before, and it certainly has positively impacted her life in ways far beyond academics.”

In addition to gaining course credit, Niswonger Online helps students learn time management skills, online course structure and college readiness. Instructors understand that their students are young, and they can help guide them through new experiences like learning proper email etiquette and uploading assignments online. Instructors are selected because they are noted as being among Tennessee’s best educators. They are provided guidance and support in moving their successful classroom skills to an online format.

The courses can also help students gain better study skills as they work independently through the online structure. Success with online course-taking is an excellent “life skill.” Online courses are becoming more popular in post-secondary education, so Niswonger Online gives students the advantage of knowing how to succeed in a virtual environment.

One student from Cherokee High School (Rogersville) was admitted to Princeton University because of her excellent transcript that had six online courses through Niswonger Online, including three different world languages. “She came out of this small high school, but she had a transcript that could go up against any student from across the nation,” said Gina Pavlovich, Director of Learning Resources. I love hearing our students’ success stories. A lot of these kids just needed a push to help them see that they are good enough, they can do this. We take great pleasure in knowing that they did this online with us.”

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