The Risks of Breakneck Growth at State’s Largest Virtual School

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Oklahoma’s largest online charter school is on a track of explosive growth, nearly tripling its enrollment over three years, to almost 8,500.

That pursuit of lightning growth by Epic Charter Schools – a goal affirmed by its co-founder – shows no signs of letting up. Epic officials predict enrollment will near 10,000 by mid-school year.

But the trend is raising concerns from one top online charter-school regulator about whether there is too much turnover of students. And at least one national report warns that rapid expansion at virtual charter schools can compromise academic achievement.

Epic’s unconventional efforts to drive enrollment also have raised eyebrows. Among other tactics, it gives out concert tickets, vacations and other prizes to students’ families as rewards for referrals of students. The school also spurs referrals by depositing bonus money into “learning fund” accounts that families can use to  buy their curriculum or computers or defray fees for extracurricular activities such as dancing, club sports or archery. Epic told state officials the rewards are not paid for with state funds.

Epic administrators say their system is growing rapidly because parents and students love it. Parents of some students applaud the program, saying it gives them the freedom of home-schooling with some of the benefits of a public school.

David Chaney serves as both superintendent of the nonprofit Epic Charter Schools and CEO of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee.

Michael Willmus / Oklahoma Watch

David Chaney serves as both superintendent of the nonprofit Epic Charter Schools and CEO of Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee.

“Clearly, we’re providing a quality of service and education that families are enjoying and appreciate, or we wouldn’t be continuing to grow year after year,” said Superintendent David Chaney.

But Epic’s academic performance is average or low, as measured by the state’s standard assessment tools. Just over a quarter of Epic’s students last year graduated within four years, compared with 82 percent statewide. Its elementary, middle and high schools received a C-, D and C on the state A-F report cards.

Those marks contrast with Epic’s posting a 100 percent attendance rate for the 2015-2016 school year, achieved by only one other school in the state – ABLE Charter School, a virtual school the state is trying to close.

“There is a good place for virtual charter schools,” said Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, which oversees all of the state’s online schools. “I’ve got lots of stories from individual families and students that it’s the right choice for. But more than anything, these large numbers of kids coming in – it’s disturbing, and overshadows the good it (Epic) can do.”

Epic co-founder Ben Harris said the school is working on improving its graduation rates and A-F letter grades. He added the number that matters most to him is enrollment.

“The statistic that matters to us is how many parents say our school is the best choice for them every year. We feel like real accountability is choice,” Harris said.

Epic’s Rise

Epic Charter Schools, once called Epic One-on-One, was the first statewide online charter school to form in Oklahoma. At the time, in 2011, it was sponsored by the small Graham-Dustin School District in Weleetka.

Epic, founded by Chaney and Harris, began classes with an enrollment of more than 1,700 for the year. Its tenure has been marked by controversy, including Epic suing the state Department of Education over funding and the release of its report card. In both lawsuits, Epic prevailed. The school also is dealing with an ongoing state investigation into allegations of fraud, which Epic denies.

Ben Harris, co-founder of Epic Charter Schools, said high enrollment is a priority because it indicates students and parents value the school.

Michael Willmus / Oklahoma Watch

Ben Harris, co-founder of Epic Charter Schools, said high enrollment is a priority because it indicates students and parents value the school.

Epic Charter Schools is the brand name for Community Strategies Inc., a nonprofit that receives state and other education funds. The nonprofit contracts with Epic Youth Services, a for-profit company that manages the school for a fee of 10 percent of Epic’s gross revenue. Epic Youth Services, in turn, contracts with Advanced Academics, a division of Connections Education, a Pearson company. Calvert Partners and Beasley Technology also have contracts with Epic Youth Services.

Chaney is both superintendent of Epic and chief executive officer of Epic Youth Services.

Like other charter schools, Epic receives state aid based on enrollment. And that enrollment began taking dramatic leaps in 2014-2015, when the total number of students soared by 50 percent, to nearly 4,400.

This year, Epic also became the first Oklahoma charter school to expand to another state when school leaders opened an online school in California last month. There are 62 students enrolled.

Success with Self-Discipline

Oklahoma’s five virtual charter schools cater to parents and students attracted by the convenience and flexibility of attending public school at home.

Online schools market to home-schooling families, but some home-school advocates dislike virtual charter schools, saying they are still government-controlled schools.

Students in online charter schools take their courses mainly by computer, often using learning programs provided by third-party companies, such as Virginia-based K12 Inc. Some schools provide students a computer and free internet access. Teachers contact students and parents regularly via email, telephone or in-person visits.

Online school operators say their learning model and flexible schedules are ideal for students in many situations, such as athletes, musicians, teenage moms, chronically ill students and victims of bullying.

Matt Whittington, of Edmond, enrolled in Epic Charter Schools because the flexibility of online classes fit with his commitment to gymnastics. The family made special efforts to ensure that the arrangement worked.

Michael Willmus / Oklahoma Watch

Matt Whittington, of Edmond, enrolled in Epic Charter Schools because the flexibility of online classes fit with his commitment to gymnastics. The family made special efforts to ensure that the arrangement worked.

Matthew Whittington, of Edmond, said leaving the four walls of his high school was about rearranging time for his passion: gymnastics.

His freshman year, he’d routinely follow a day of classes with four or five hours at the gym. Then, tired, he’d come home to a mess of homework.

He learned of Epic from another competitive gymnast and thought it sounded like a good fit.

Matt is now in his third year, his senior year, with Epic. He’s preparing to graduate and is eyeing college.

While his mom, Peggy Whittington, speaks highly of the education her son has received at Epic, she acknowledges that online school isn’t a good fit for every student. In fact, Matt’s two brothers (he is a triplet) attend their neighborhood brick-and-mortar school, Edmond Memorial High School.

“You have to be very self-motivated and self-disciplined,” Peggy Whittington said. “You have to realize that just because you’re not ruled by the bell … you have to have structure to your life.”

To help Matt succeed in virtual school, she had an arrangement with his teacher the past two years in which he and the other students spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the teacher’s home from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., where the teacher facilitated learning and answered questions.

Matt’s dad was able to arrange a flexible work schedule to stay home with him some days and teach him math and science.

“We made it work in our family, but it wasn’t without some sacrifice,” said Whittington, a teacher at Edmond Memorial.

Researchers Urge Caution

As of Sept. 1, more than 12,500 students across Oklahoma were enrolled in virtual charter schools. Hundreds of other students attend online courses provided by traditional school districts.

Most of the growth at virtual charter schools has been driven by Epic’s expansion.

In other states, skyrocketing enrollments at virtual schools have raised red flags among education officials.

In June, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which endorses virtual schooling, issued a report – a “call to action” – sharply critical of virtual charter schools.

It cited three separate studies from late 2015 and noted, “Most striking and troubling in these reports is the finding of large-scale underperformance by full-time virtual charter schools.”

Another study of online schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia, released last year, found that during a 180-day school year, virtual students lost an average of 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days, or an entire school year, of learning in math.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools called for states to “make the tough policy choices” necessary to ensure online education is working,  including closing  low-performing virtual charter schools.

An additional recommendation was to curb enrollment growth.

The alliance proposed that states consider eliminating open enrollment and setting criteria for admission of students who can best benefit from online education. It recommended setting maximum enrollment levels for any school so “operators will focus on enrolling students who will flourish in this type of environment, rather than just getting students in seats.”

Some states, such as Maine and Illinois, have taken such measures, capping the growth of virtual schools based on poor academic performance and setting limits on how many virtual schools can open each year.

Oklahoma has no limits on enrollment in virtual schools or the number of schools.

However, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, the state’s second largest online school, said it has kept its enrollment to just over 2,000 students for three years in a row in order to improve quality.

“That was strategic,” Head of School Sheryl Tatum said, adding, “We experienced great growth in the beginning and we wanted to stabilize and work on improving the program rather than growing. It’s hard to do both.”

The school’s governing board sets a cut-off for enrollment, usually in September.

Despite the efforts, the school’s academic measures remain low. In 2014-2015, its elementary and middle schools were given D grades, and its high school received a C-. Its four-year graduation, or completion, rate dropped from 44 percent in 2012-2013  to 33 percent in 2013-2014.

Epic’s graduation rate improved slightly, from 25 percent to 28 percent.

Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, attends a board meeting in September.

Jennifer Palmer / Oklahoma Watch

Rebecca Wilkinson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, attends a board meeting in September.

Addressing the graduation rate, Harris said the measurement ought to be expanded to six years instead of four. The Statewide Virtual Charter School Board this year intends to calculate both four- and six-year rates as well as the percentage of starting seniors who graduate.

As estimated 15 percent of Epic students are returning to school to achieve a high school diploma, Harris said. Many times, these students aren’t able to graduate on time, which lowers the school’s graduation rate.

“The norm we’re fighting there is it only takes four years to get out of high school,” Harris said. “But what we’re finding is normal is rare now. Everybody has their own unique circumstances.”

State law allows high schools to enroll students up to age 21.

Epic enrolls any student at any point in the year and has never had a waiting list. Harris said he’s especially proud to serve victims of bullying and other students facing significant hurdles in a traditional school setting.

He said he’s tired of people criticizing their school model.

“We’re going to serve thousands and thousands of kids this year, and we’re really getting tired of being maligned,” Harris said.

Concerns over Churn

The low graduation rates tie into critics’ concerns that virtual schools can become “swinging doors.”

Student retention, or how many students return to the school in subsequent years, will be the focus of an audit the Virtual Charter School Board plans to conduct next month.

Wilkinson said she hopes the data will address whether there are certain times of the year when students are dropping from the rolls, such as just before spring testing or just after Oct. 1, when enrollment is measured by the state for funding purposes.

National studies have shown that many times, virtual students end up back in their traditional neighborhood school. One of the problems with that is the funding for that student stays with the virtual school.

Epic leaders say about two-thirds of their students return the next year, leaving one-third who leave the school and enroll elsewhere.

Flight from Traditional Schools

Some parents and online school leaders say many parents are migrating to virtual schools because they are fed up with local schools.

More than 80 percent of Epic students previously attended a neighborhood public school, according to a survey of 350 Epic parents in May, conducted by The Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. Nearly 22 percent had been home-schooled, and 10 percent had attended another online charter school. Some students had multiple prior schooling experiences.

The most common reasons parents sought a virtual school was that their child was not succeeding academically, was being bullied or needed flexibility due to traveling, health issues or sports.

“We saw that the schools were getting worse, not better and didn’t want our child in that environment,” one parent wrote. “My child was bullied and no (one) seemed to care,” another wrote.

These parents may be searching for alternatives when they hear about virtual schools.

One way virtual schools and their affiliates maximize enrollment is by engaging in aggressive recruitment.

K12, the Virginia company, which provides curriculum for two Oklahoma virtual charters, spent $31.2 million on advertising last year, including public television ads aired in localities.

Epic’s recent contests for parent-to-parent referrals included prizes such as a package of concert tickets to see Selena Gomez and a family getaway to Great Wolf Lodge.

The school also adds $100 for each referral into a student’s learning fund, a school-controlled account that starts with $800 each year and that parents “spend” on curriculum, laptops, and activities such as sports and dance (which qualify as physical education.) The list of qualifying vendors includes piano studios, dance academies, soccer and martial arts, even equestrian clubs and an archery range.

Virtual schools spend a lot of money on marketing because they rely on enrollment for funding, and they have to compensate for high attrition, said Mary Sue Backus, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who co-wrote a study on virtual schools titled “Solution or Siren Song?”

“That’s a big open question. How much are these schools spending on marketing, not instruction? Would a public school ever spend any resources on drumming up more students?” Backus said.

The study by Backus and attorney and former teacher Hayley Jones raised questions about the effectiveness, funding formula and profit-driven providers of virtual charter schools.

Noting the “irresistible” lure of online schools and their innovative potential, the report urged policymakers not to rush to embrace them “without first fully understand and controlling for the potential peril.”

  • homebuilding

    Add these two:

    –the general lack of adequate oversight of ANYTHING in Oklahoma (public, private, earthquakes, etc.)

    and

    –the trainwreck of various oversight reports on virtual schools, nationwide…….

    or would that be multiply?

    The sum or the product, at the end has a lot of grinding and sparks, smelling of another ‘garden path’ that led only to an outhouse.

    • Trent

      I’m curious, do you know anything about these programs? Or just like to see your words show up on a screen? Even this article points out that parents choose these programs because of academics, bullying, or a specific need for flexibility. I suppose you’d rather their kids fall behind or be stuck getting bullied? How much ideological zeal does it take to care that little about vulnerable people in your own community?

  • Bill Adamsky

    “We’re going to serve thousands and thousands of kids this year, and we’re really getting tired of being maligned,” Harris said. Boo hoo. Get your house in order and you won’t have to worry about all them mean critics. Meanwhile, in Ohio…http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2016/08/23/judge-will-not-dismiss-ecot-lawsuit.html

  • Erin