Proposal Would Expand Unproven Concept: Online-Only Alternative Schools

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The state’s largest virtual charter school wants to open an alternative high school for at-risk students, saying the school will better address the needs of struggling students who already attend or will enroll in its regular online school.

If the state approves, Epic Charter Schools would begin enrolling students in its alternative school for the 2018-19 school year. Epic would become the second virtual school in the state that is a designated alternative school. The other is Insight School of Oklahoma, which along with Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, is part of the national chain of K12 online schools. 

Online-only schools already attract many at-risk and academically deficient students. School leaders say virtual alternative schools are set up to focus on helping those students overcome personal and learning hurdles in order to get a high school degree.

The state Department of Education is reviewing Epic’s application, which was submitted May 9.

The proposal, however, comes amid a growing volume of research that shows online education fares poorly at improving student learning compared with traditional schools. In one recent study by researchers at New York University and the RAND Corporation, all students across all subjects and grade spans in Ohio learned less in online school than their peers in traditional public and charter schools, as measured by standardized tests. That included both high-achieving students and low-achieving ones, for whom the stakes are high.

Those findings echo what researchers at Stanford University found in a 2015 study comparing online charter schools with traditional district and charter schools. The report, which covered 17 states and the District of Columbia (Oklahoma was not among them), caused some charter school supporters to distance themselves from online charter schools.

In Oklahoma, Epic’s high school dropout rate was 21 percent in 2016, according to the latest available report from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. That was double Insight’s dropout rate of 10.5 percent and 10 times the state average of 1.9 percent. Epic’s 2016 graduation rate was 27 percent, compared to Insight’s 34 percent rate that year. The statewide graduation rate is 83 percent.

Administrators at Epic and other virtual schools say four-year cohort graduation rates unfairly measure virtual schools because the schools don’t receive credit for the students who graduate in more than four years; many students enroll in virtual school already behind, they say.

Despite the research and outcome statistics, the growth in the virtual schools sector in Oklahoma and across the country has been exponential. More than 17,000 Oklahoma students now attend a virtual school, a 112 percent increase in three years. (About 5,100 of those students are in Epic’s blended school, where students receive some on-site instruction.) Parents who choose virtual schools for their students often cite bullying and other safety concerns or a need for flexible schedules as reasons for leaving traditional schools.

Online schools are often perceived as best for students who have the self-discipline and motivation to achieve without frequent interaction with teachers. Parent involvement can still be critical, however. How high-risk students in online alternative schools will perform in the long run is an unanswered question.

Pursuit of Success

Photo provided.

Kadi Bogle

One student who found success in an online alternative school is Kadi Bogle, of Pryor. She dropped out of school at 16 while pregnant with her first child and, two years ago, enrolled at Insight. She graduated this year.

Bogle, now a mom of two, says the teachers and advisors not only helped her determine what classes she needed but also helped develop a schedule so she could squeeze in homework around shifts as a cashier and taking care of her children.

“Most nights I stayed up until it was time to get the kids up for the day to get school work done,” she said.

Officials at Epic Charter Schools, which has about 13,000 students combined in its blended and online-only programs, say one reason their academic performance scores lag is because many students start the program credit deficient. One-third of the school’s students arrive behind in the credits they need to graduate, school officials say.

David Chaney

Epic Superintendent David Chaney said with an alternative school, Epic will be better able to meet the needs of vulnerable high school students, many of whom are referred by their school.

“We are honored to serve these students and know from both our experience and research they need tailored, targeted services that go beyond simple credit recovery,” Chaney wrote in a letter to the state Department of Education requesting the alternative designation.

If approved, the alternative school will focus on targeted dropout prevention services, tailored curriculum and dedicated personnel, Chaney wrote.

The designation would allow the school to channel some struggling students into the new school. The state would measure the schools separately under the new accountability system.

A 2017 investigation by ProPublica, a national nonprofit news outlet, found alternative schools in Orlando and elsewhere were being used as warehouses for lowperforming students so regular schools could avoid being held accountable for them.

Charter school sponsors are responsible for oversight and ensuring schools are not funneling students to one site over another, said Brad Clark, an attorney for the state Education Department.

Same Requirements Apply

Alternative schools are designed to serve at-risk students, such as those with behavior difficulties, excessive absences, mental health issues or other hurdles that make it difficult to complete a typical high school program.

There are 17 program areas alternative school programs are required to provide, including arts education and life skills instruction, and virtual schools are held to the same standard as traditional schools, said Jennifer Wilkinson, director of alternative education for the state Education Department.

“Some things are a bigger challenge for a virtual school,” said Wilkinson, adding that the state has been working with Insight to keep up consistent contact with students and parents.

Without a virtual option, many at-risk students would drop out and not finish high school at all, said Sheryl Tatum, head of school for the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy and the alternative school, Insight.

“It’s beyond a graduation plan. It’s what’s going on with your life that we need to help you figure out … so you can get through this,” Tatum said. Some of Insight’s students are young parents, are working to support a family or have mental health issues.

Insight’s graduation rate was 34 percent in 2016, which is far below the statewide rate of 83 percent but an improvement over its rate of less than 5 percent two years ago.

Alternative schools are required to offer smaller class sizes and more individualized attention. A recent review by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability found some teachers at Insight carried a roster of 100 students or more in certain classes, such as physical science and algebra.

Tatum said these numbers are difficult to compare to a traditional school classroom. An Insight teacher may have 100 or more students on their “caseload”, but they hold live class sessions with 15 to 20 students at a time.

Comments from parents and students surveyed about the school ranged from being satisfied with the amount of teacher contact – “Teachers respond to his questions quickly,” one parent said – to being frustrated with lack of contact – “I have not received any feedback from the teachers,” another parent said.

Reviewers at the accountability office had mostly positive observations about the school, including its individualized curriculum, class scheduling and efforts to increase student engagement.

Few Alternative Schools

State law requires all public school districts, with a few exceptions, to provide alternative education programs, but just five schools make it their sole purpose, according to the state Education Department. Of those, Insight is the only virtual one.

Insight was founded in 2014 with a focus on serving at-risk youth but received an official alternative school designation last year — the same designation Epic is seeking. K12 Virtual Schools, a national company, manages Insight and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy. The two schools share some administrative services but have separate governing boards.

Tatum said ultimately it’s up to the student and parents about where to enroll.

“We’re not pushing them over to Insight,” Tatum said. “We’re going to serve them wherever they decide to sign up.”

Many at-risk students attend Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Tatum said, and the school is working to increase support programs for at-risk students there.

One difference between Insight and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Tatum said, is Insight operates on a block schedule instead of semesters, which gives students the ability to complete credits faster.

“We’ve made a difference in a lot of kids’ lives that have graduated and now actually have a high school diploma and a future,” Tatum said. “I absolutely think there is a place for that option.”

Reach Jennifer Palmer at jpalmer@oklahomawatch.org.