Administrators at Epic Charter Schools have been allowing, encouraging or pressuring teachers to manipulate students’ enrollment for years in order to improve employees’ bonus pay, according to at least seven former teachers.
Four of the teachers allege the practices in legal notices stating they intend to sue Epic after being terminated last year. Three others made similar claims in interviews with Oklahoma Watch.
Teacher bonuses were dangled like “a carrot” and used to push for withdrawals of low-performing students, the teachers said.
If those students rejoined the virtual school’s rolls, they were still considered a part-year student and weren’t included in accountability measures like the school report cards released in February. Students who enroll late are also part-year.
More than half of Epic’s 20,000 students in June 2018 were enrolled part-year, according to state Education Department data.
Epic received mostly Cs on report cards, but more than four in 10 student tests were not factored into the grades. That’s 7,423 exams that didn’t count in 2017-18, the latest year for which state data is available.
Epic had the highest percentage of student tests excluded than any other school in the state except alternative schools, which have high mobility due to their focus on students at risk of dropping out.
An Epic spokeswoman denies the school allows or pushes teachers or principals to withdraw students for bonus pay or accountability gains. She provided data showing only 8 percent of tested students in 2017-18 were withdrawn because of a gap in enrollment, saying it showed Epic didn’t try to manipulate test accountability.
But three former teachers contacted independently by Oklahoma Watch described similar withdrawal practices while working for the school. The intent-to-sue notices, provided to Epic by a Norman law firm, say the school’s bonuses drove decisions on student withdrawals and other academic choices involving students.
The four former teachers filing the claim notices say they were fired for pushing back against pressure to manipulate their student rosters. They say the school still owes them all or part of the bonus payment, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
“There was always a carrot dangling,” said former Epic teacher Amanda Ensley, who is not among the four who have taken legal action.
Withdrawing was easy to do, she said. Teachers had the ability to withdraw students themselves from their own computers with “a click of a button,” said Ensley, who resigned in January.
Then parents could, and often did, quickly re-enroll, the teachers say.
“I felt it was very unethical, at the least, for teachers to be able to withdraw students so easily, especially when money is involved,” said Angie Wren, who taught for Epic in 2016.
Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for Epic, said withdrawing students for low academic performance is forbidden by the organization and would be grounds for dismissal. No former employee has ever made a complaint to Epic’s human resources department describing they were pressured by a principal to withdraw low-performing students, she said. Teachers told Oklahoma Watch not all principals pressured them to withdraw students.
Epic Charter Schools
Enrollment: More than 21,000 students as of October 2018.
Started: In 2011 by businessmen David Chaney and Ben Harris.
Locations: Epic operates online schools in Oklahoma (statewide) and California (in five counties), as well as three centers that blend virtual and in-person learning in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Epic also manages operations for Panola Public Schools.
Structure: Epic Charter Schools is the business name for the nonprofit, 501(c)3 Community Strategies Inc. A subsidiary, Community Strategies-CA, a not-for-profit LLC, contracts with Panola and Epic California. Epic Youth Services is a for-profit company that manages Epic Charter Schools and is owned by Chaney and Harris.
Investigations: Both the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General have conducted investigations into Epic recently, according to the Tulsa World. In 2013, Epic was investigated on allegations of fraud at the request of Gov. Mary Fallin. No charges were filed.
Sources: Oklahoma State Department of Education; public records; epiccharterschools.org; california.epiccharterschools.org, California School Information Services audit.
The school does have a policy to withdraw students automatically when they complete fewer than 31 assignments during a nine-week period, considering these students “truant.” Traditional school districts typically only withdraw students for missing 10 consecutive days of school, though students can also lose credit and be reported to the district attorney for excessive absences, according to a review of several district policies by Oklahoma Watch.
Epic’s policy was implemented in 2018, following a change in state law requiring virtual schools to count attendance one of three different ways. Data from 2018-19 is not yet available. The seven teachers left Epic before the most recent school year, so it’s unclear if changes have been made.
Lure of the Bonus
Epic recruits teachers with offers of a potential six-figure paycheck. But up to half of that compensation comes in the form of the bonus — an amount so significant teachers talk about buying a car with it.
A large part of that bonus is based on the academic performance of “non-truant,” or full-year, students.
Wren, who has also taught at brick-and-mortar schools, said she felt like Epic wanted her to withdraw students who were completing assignments – in other words, weren’t “absent” – but had been identified as not expected to pass the spring tests.
“My principal would instruct me to give additional remediation assignments and mandatory online homework-help sessions that made it almost impossible for the kids to keep up with,” she said. “When students couldn’t keep up with the extra things assigned, my principal began pressuring me to withdraw them for truancy.”
She pushed back, saying that based on the school’s expectations, all of her more than 30 students should be withdrawn. That part of the bonus is based on full-year students only, he told her, indicating she only needed one full-year student who would score well. A document outlining how bonuses were calculated in 2018-19 confirms that portion of the bonus is based on full-year students only.
If a teacher has 22 students, but only 12 are full-year, the passing rate of the 12 is used to calculate the potential bonus. Teachers were eligible for hundreds of dollars per student based on their test performance.
Not all principals pressured teachers like this, Wren said. Her first principal never mentioned withdrawing students unless they stopped logging in and stopped replying to her, and never discussed bonus money, she said. Wren resigned in January 2017.
To predict student test performance, Epic uses an assessment called the NWEA MAP Growth, which is also used by traditional school districts. But at Epic there’s a hyper-focus on it, teachers say, coupled with teachers’ ability to withdraw students themselves and the financial incentives.
Trina Menzie, who worked at Epic in 2017, said teachers were asked to submit monthly reports detailing which students were “red, yellow or green” based on the MAP test’s predictions and which students were full-year and which were not.
“It’s all data-based and ‘who’s weighing you down,’” she said. “It creates a culture of fear where you’re afraid to keep kids that are low performers on your roster.”
The intent-to-sue notices sent to Epic in May and June by four former teachers who allege they were fired for resisting pressure to manipulate their student rosters. The claim notices were filed by attorneys for Ryan Aispuro, Shaunna Atchley and Jason Deskin, who began teaching at Epic in July 2017, and Noelle Waller, who joined Epic in November 2013. All were fired in July 2018.
In her claim notice, Atchley said she pushed back against her principal, Kristie Surface, who said “she needed to dump all of her students that reduced bonuses,” according to the notice. She also said Surface singled out one student for withdrawal, calling the student a “waste of time.”
Atchley said the principal explained that “this student did not deserve Epic and that Epic was free to pick and choose what students it wanted.”
Oklahoma Watch attempted to reach Surface through her social media account, but Surface has not responded.
Notices of Tort Claims
(Filers’ addresses and phone numbers redacted)
Waller’s claim notice describes how Epic used results from benchmarking tests to categorize students into red, yellow and green depending on their achievement and aptitude for testing. Epic’s enforcement of truancy standards was lax for yellow and green students but rigorously applied to red students, the document states.
“There was always discussion of … which students you should be able to push over the hump and which students you should withdraw and pull back in as not full academic year,” Waller said.
Two other administrators named in the claim notices, then-principals Amanda Lashley and David Weston, could not be reached for comment. Former principal Jodie Shupe, now Epic’s managing director of instruction, when reached by phone, declined to comment.
Epic did not provide a detailed response to requests on Monday for comments on the claim notices filed by the four former teachers. On Friday, the school posted a response to Oklahoma Watch’s story and linked to copies of letters sent to the teachers’ attorneys.
In the letters, attorney Bill Hickman denies allegations in the notices. He writes, “Epic’s process for addressing truancy and attendance is consistent with the practices of other public schools and the law.” He writes that as at-will employees, the teachers can be terminated or not rehired for any reason, and some of the reasons Epic gives are detailed in the letters. Although the four teachers maintain Epic fired them in retaliation for resisting withdrawals, Hickman instead cites issues such as failure to follow the employment agreement and employee handbook, inappropriate conduct, poor communication and, in some cases, parent complaints.
Epic’s Responses to Teachers’ Claim Notices
Most Epic students excluded from accountability ratings in 2017-18 were given that status because they were late enrollees.
Oklahoma public schools are not held responsible in report cards for the performance of students who enroll after the 20th day of the school year. In 2017-18, nearly a third of Epic’s 19,918 students were late enrollees, according to state data.
Hickman, of Epic, said the school attracts a lot of latecomers because many students in traditional schools become dissatisfied mid-year due to bullying, school safety concerns, medical reasons, lack of success in school or referral by their school.
“We make no apologies for being accessible to all Oklahoma families any time they need our services,” Hickman said.
Epic pursues those students. Oklahoma’s three other virtual schools only allow enrollment during certain times of the year. Epic admits students year-round and markets to new students well after the school year begins. It also offers rewards for referrals of new students. Epic doesn’t receive per-pupil state aid for late enrollees, but they have helped drive its rapid year-over-year growth. Part of teachers’ bonuses is based on how many of their students are retained by Epic the next year.
When legislation this year threatened Epic’s ability to enroll year-round, school leaders fought back. In an email sent to students’ parents, Epic called Senate Bill 148 “the most damaging legislation to Epic families.”
The bill, co-authored by Rep. Derrel Fincher, R-Bartlesville, and Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, would have created two annual enrollment periods for all virtual schools, while still allowing exceptions for emergencies.
After Epic’s email went out, Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, was one lawmaker hit by a flood of concerns from Epic supporters.
“It was intense,” Rosecrants said. “It was, full on, make sure this never gets heard.”
Fincher said he decided to lay the bill over after speaking with Ben Harris, who founded Epic with David Chaney, but plans to revive it in 2020. Fincher said he’s looking for evidence about the magnitude of virtual schools’ student “churn.”
This story was updated June 29 to reflect responses from Epic’s attorney to the four teachers who had filed tort claim notices with the school.
Correction: In an earlier version of the story, a link to a copy of Epic’s bonus plan was labeled “2017-18.” Epic representatives say the plan is for 2018-19.
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