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‘VIRTUAL PIONEER’ SHINES IN STUDIES

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By Cindy Simpson

With a lightning-fast mind and body, Austin Cochran struggled with the pace in traditional schools.

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Diagnosed in kindergarten with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, the fifth-grader was often bored and antsy in the classroom.

“He had a lot of sensory issues,” said his mother, Tina Cochran. “In the lunchroom he had to wear earplugs in his ears because he couldn’t stand going into the lunchroom because it was so loud in there.”
The solution they found for Austin in fourth grade was Tennessee Virtual Academy, a K-12 online school program.

“This seemed like a better option for us to try with him,” said Tina Cochran,
who is called a learning coach in her son’s educational environment.
Austin, 10, has his reasons for particularly loving the program.

“One, you get to sleep in. Two, you get to go in your pajamas. And three, you get to go at your own pace. If you don’t know something you can go back and study it,” Austin said.

Austin first attended Kingston Elementary School and Gateway Christian Academy before finding the program.

He has a teacher and a virtual classroom and often uses Skype and other means to communicate with his teacher.

“There is actually so much support at this school,” Tina Cochran said.  
Now he can study at night if he wishes, or focus more on subjects he’s talented in.

For example, he’s already doing sixth-grade math and will likely be doing seventh-grade math next school year.

“He can do as much or as little in a day as required. Now he’s doing geometry and algebra,” Tina Cochran said. “Austin and I will take the laptop to the lake. We can do school anywhere.”

His constant movement would get him in trouble in a traditional school. Teachers tried to give him extra work to keep him busy while others finished assignments. Austin, however, would get into something else instead.

“His little body just has to move all the time,” Tina Cochran said.
Austin’s intellect shows right away. His vocabulary is already testing at a ninth-grade level. He exudes enthusiasm for math, science and history and readily absorbs information he’s fascinated in.

“I love science,” Austin said. When asked what lessons he particularly loved, he couldn’t name just one.

“Tennessee Virtual Academy has just unleashed a love for learning a traditional school just couldn’t offer to Austin,” Tina Cochran said.
During a recent science project of diffusion through a membrane using cornstarch and iodine, he is focused on everything going just right. He looks intently as he counts the drops of iodine going into the plastic bags.

“I hope you got these exact,” Austin said to his father, Lonnie Cochran, who works at Y-12.

He knows a lot about nuclear energy and the work done in Oak Ridge that ended World War II.

One of his favorite places to go is the American Museum of Science and Energy.
He loves meeting children on field trips with other Virtual Academy children, including a child known as C.J. who gravitates toward Austin on the outings.

“We have common interests,” Austin said.
“We see his face and how excited he gets to see the children in his classroom and other classrooms. It is a very social time for him and a learning experience,” Tina Cochran said.

Austin loves to build things and has plans to make inventions. Most of his ideas focus on environmentally friendly products.
When Lonnie Cochran starts to share Austin’s idea for a future project, the boy quickly admonishes him for revealing his secret invention.
Austin embraces people, making himself right at home with just about anyone.

He recently jumped aboard a Coast Guard boat in Kingston and surprised the crew with his intense knowledge of their work and boat.
He also got to work with a blacksmith at the Museum of Appalachia.
“I made a hook out of a nail,” Austin said. He was given a certificate as an apprentice blacksmith.
Not only is he academically gifted, but he is talented at other hobbies, including piano.

“He plays  a Mozart song and Bach song way above his age level,” Tina Cochran said.

He’s an avid fisherman and loves animals.

In fact, he wrote U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander about some of the issues he cares about, including land overdevelopment and other environmental concerns.

He even is a yellow belt in karate, which he was introduced to because of its focus on paying attention and discipline.
The Cochrans were one of the first families to sign up for the Tennessee Virtual Academy.

“We call ourselves pioneers. We are one of the pioneers of Tennessee Virtual Academy,” Tina Cochran said.

They receive Austin’s curriculum at the first of the year.
“Everything you need for your classroom is sent to our front door. There is absolutely nothing we have to purchase at all. I have a teachers guide. He has the student curriculum. We have books like traditional schools do. I would say about half is online and half is classwork he has to do with pencil and paper,” Tina Cochran said.
Like in school, Austin takes tests.

Tina Cochran doesn’t knock public school education, but after watching her adult son, Derek, who is similar to Austin, struggle in traditional school, she decided to try something different.
They are also thankful as Christians to have opportunities each day to focus on their faith.