This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The story was updated March 4 to reflect new data provided by Langston University and revised numbers for Lawton Public Schools.
Like many teenagers, Maggie Waldon caught a sort of senioritis halfway through a traditional high school. She was ready to be done.
With two years left, she enrolled in Epic Charter Schools, the Oklahoma City-based online public school that is now one of the largest virtual schools in the country.
At Epic, Waldon said she easily raised her grades from Cs and Fs to As and Bs. She said she did so with little interaction with her teacher, spending long days clicking through the curriculum. “There were days I asked my teacher for help. But mostly, I just figured it out,” Waldon said.
She was able to fast-track her remaining credits, finishing in one year what would have taken two in a traditional school. She was one of 2,500 students in Epic’s class of 2019.
That’s when she discovered she wasn’t prepared for college, she said. On the ACT exam, she “failed, majorly.” She has put her dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher on hold.
“I wish Epic actually helped prepare you for a future, because we all grow up and become adults. That’s something they didn’t do,” Waldon said.
In a five-month investigation into Epic’s college-going rates, Oklahoma Watch found that fewer than one in five 2019 graduates enrolled in a public Oklahoma college or university last fall. Its rate was lower than rates for all of the state’s 10 largest school districts, according to an Oklahoma Watch analysis of education data. The data was collected from every college and university in the state.
Epic reported far more high school graduates than the 10 districts, but far fewer enrolled in a state college.
Epic, through its public relations firm Price Lang, said the school’s own data suggests graduates’ college-going rate is closer to the state average. But it did not provide any data to establish that.
In interviews with Oklahoma Watch, Epic graduates identified several issues that help explain Epic’s low college-going rate. Some described an educational system that makes it easy to speed through classes with little learning and little or no structured counseling to prepare for college.
Epic also draws many students who struggled in other schools and who must race to catch up to be college-ready.
Epic, which is operated by a for-profit company owned by the school’s founders, Epic Youth Services, reported more than 28,000 students this year. Students complete most of their studies online with oversight from, and periodic interaction with, an Oklahoma teacher.
One measure of students’ preparedness for college is their score on the ACT college readiness exam.
Most regional universities want to see at least a 20 composite score out of a possible 35. Oklahoma State University admits students with minimum of 22 to 24, and the average score of University of Oklahoma freshman is 26. The state average is 18.9.
Epic’s graduating class of 2019 scored an average 16.5. That’s a significant drop from a 20.2 the previous year, when far fewer students took the exam.
Just 4% of Epic students met all four of the college readiness benchmarks established by the ACT, compared to 15% statewide.
Epic says it’s working to improve students’ ACT scores and college readiness. “Last year, we graduated more than 2,500 kids. While we don’t follow all of them after high school, we do know that many of them have gone on to college, entered the workforce or are now serving in the military,” said Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for the school.
They’ve introduced several strategies, including providing all students with an ACT-approved calculator, providing teachers training on ACT prep and reducing student-teacher ratios. Teachers can connect students with ACT resources and study guides. Epic also plans to identify struggling students earlier to shore up their learning before high school.
“Epic isn’t passive where ACT scores are concerned and we have been implementing programs and supports to help our students perform better,” Hickman said.
She said the school’s average is affected by students who are already below grade level when they come to Epic. Of the 1,414 students in the 2019 ACT report, only 152 had been enrolled in Epic three years or more, Hickman said.
“Their scores are more a reflection on their previous schools rather than on Epic because … the ACT is a cumulative knowledge assessment,” Hickman said.
Epic Superintendent Bart Banfield said he’s proud of the work Epic does to graduate students who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated.
“The vast majority of students who come to Epic are at least one grade level behind,” he said.
Epic’s ACT Scores
The ACT is the state’s most widely used college readiness exam. Epic Charter Schools’ number of test takers jumped significantly in 2019.
|Year||Epic Charter Schools||Oklahoma|
With the jump, Epic students’ average composite score on the ACT dropped significantly below the state average. The maximum ACT score is 36.
Percent Meeting College Readiness Benchmarks
The percent of Epic students who met all four of ACT’s college readiness benchmarks – in English, math, reading and science – also dropped in 2019. Students who meet these benchmarks have a 50% chance of earning a B or higher in the corresponding college course.
State data shows Epic’s student population in 2018 was on par with the state’s in terms of students in poverty (68% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 63% statewide) and in special education (16.5% compared with 16.1% statewide). It was significantly more white (68% white compared with 49% for all public school districts.)
Across the state, about half of graduates from 2015 to 2017 enrolled in an in-state college, according to the state Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. Just 23% of Epic students did.
Studies show earning a degree is still the surest path to a secure financial future. College graduates are more likely to earn at least a middle-class salary, are less likely to be unemployed and are less likely to be living in poverty, studies by the Pew Research Center and others show.
More than half of all “good jobs” now require a bachelor’s degree, according to Georgetown University researchers, who define a “good job” as one paying at least $35,000 for younger workers and $45,000 for older workers.
Graduates who delay college lower the odds they will successfully earn a degree.
The pace of some students’ studies at Epic raises questions about how much they’re learning.
Waldon, the aspiring kindergarten teacher, left her traditional high school after sophomore year. She was making poor to average grades and racking up absences.
With Epic, she was able to speed to the finish line. She completed junior year in five months and senior year in two months – two of those classes, she said, she finished in a single day.
“I was just going, going, going, and didn’t really have time to sit there and actually look at what I was doing,” said Waldon. “When you do that, you’re not really learning anything.”
That became evident when she took the ACT; she said she “failed, majorly.” Now working full-time at a daycare center, the 18-year-old plans to attend a community college, Rose State College, in the fall.
Several other graduates talked about using Epic as an opportunity to fast-pace high school – whether they went on to college or not.
One of Epic’s 2019 valedictorians, Bradon Adams, of Edmond, shortened his school career by two full years, taking the stage at commencement last June at 16 years old.
Fantasya Wood, a young mother in Heavener, says she completed three years of high school in just one school year while caring for two toddlers and working at a chicken plant.
“They were working at trying to get me out of there as soon as possible,” she said. She’s expecting her third child and has no plans for college.
Hickman, the Epic spokeswoman, said these students’ pacing “are not typical of the Epic experience.” She would not provide data on how many students graduated early or accelerated, and the state Education Department does not track it.
Oklahoma requires 23 credits for graduation: four English, three math, three laboratory science, three history, two world language or computer science, one fine arts, one additional core course and six electives. In traditional schools, most students take six or seven courses at a time.
Two Epic students described completing entire high school English classes without reading a single novel. One of them also said she did laboratory science courses by watching videos of experiments and answering questions about them.
Students were not having “genuine learning experiences,” said Trina Menzie, of Norman, who taught for Epic until 2017, when her contract wasn’t renewed.
“You start noticing that they’re completing a huge chunk in like 45 minutes of something that should take them three hours to do,” Menzie said of her former students. “And it’s because they just flip through all the screens of learning material, get to the test, and then just Google the answers until they get them right at a high enough rate that they can move forward.”
The issue is especially prevalent among high-school students, she said. “I think the parents need to know: These kids, they’re not ready for college,” Menzie said.
Hickman, the Epic spokeswoman, said the school’s model allows students to learn more content if they put in the time.
“Curriculum can be paced for a student to be exposed to more than one year’s worth of learning, either to graduate in less than four years or as a credit recovery strategy,” she said. “Epic students’ pace is not dependent on their peers like in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom.”
The faster pace possible at Epic is a symptom of the for-profit model of education and is much more unlikely in a traditional school, said State Rep. John Waldron, who taught for 20 years at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa.
“You know what young people are like. You give them a shortcut and they’re going to take it,” he said. “Human development is about a lot more than getting answers right.”
In a for-profit school like Epic, the strategy is to attract more students, and one way of doing so is providing an easy way to sprint through high school, he said.
Epic has stood out in recent years for its rapid growth in enrollment, which is counted for purposes of state funding in October. It started in 2011 with 1,712 students and is expected to reach 30,000 this year.
Waldron said in his experience, the students who wrapped up high school early did so by only about one semester, and then they often took college courses at the same time.
In traditional high schools, counselors play a key role in steering students into college, says Christi Sturgeon, a high-school counselor who serves on the board of the Oklahoma School Counselor Association. They help students fill out college applications, identify scholarships, connect them with internships and encourage them to take challenging classes all the way through senior year.
“Our goal is to work one-on-one with students to help them figure out what their direction is, where they’re headed and what they want, so that we’re helping them meet their needs,” Sturgeon said.
The state maximum is 450 students per counselor for secondary schools, and the state’s largest districts employ 40 to 100 counselors each.
Epic employed just three counselors last year for 21,000 enrolled students, according to state Education Department data. That far exceeds the maximum ratio, but charter schools are exempt from the requirement.
Epic instead relies on teachers to provide college guidance. Epic says its teachers work with students to ensure they have the classes needed to graduate; the school also has a graduation support department and contracts with a third party for psychological services.
Not all students interviewed by Oklahoma Watch said the teachers spoke to them about college.
Carmen Wright, who graduated in 2019 and works full-time at a bank, said her Epic teacher never talked to her about college. She wouldn’t have been interested anyway; her experience working at a coffee shop in high school helped her get a full-time job in customer service at a bank after graduation.
“College, it wasn’t really stressed,” she said. “Epic was just a bit more laid back.”
Many students are drawn to Epic because they are facing challenges such as trauma, bullying, parenting or health issues. Some transferred from districts such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City public schools, where many students are low-income and face similar issues.
One Epic graduate says it’s these personal challenges preventing many students from going to college, not Epic itself.
Stacia Flynn battled depression and anxiety after her mother went to prison her sophomore year. She planned to drop out and her school counselor suggested she try Epic first.
Flynn worked two jobs while finishing high school. She would often disappear from her teacher for months at a time, then cram all her schoolwork into a few weeks. Her teacher, she said, helped speed her along by allowing her to complete several credits in Study Island, a program that is supposed to be supplemental.
She graduated with a 3.4 grade point average but she, too, struggled on the ACT. Her score was 18, reflecting major gaps in knowledge needed for college.
Epic didn’t prepare her for the ACT, she said. But she shoulders some of that blame, too.
“I had ACT prep courses I was supposed to work through, and I didn’t, but that was because I was a really busy teenager, working two or three jobs. It was hard to do something that wasn’t actually required,” she said.
She’s now a student at the University of Central Oklahoma, is in her second semester and is taking all her classes online.
“Most people, when they start Epic, are already going through something,” she said. “I can see how most Epic graduates wouldn’t continue on afterwards to college.”
Oklahoma Watch writer Whitney Bryen contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of the story included a chart with an incorrect number and percentage of high school graduates in Lawton Public Schools who
enrolled in an Oklahoma college in 2019. The district’s enrollment rate was much higher, at 47.9%.