Dressed in blue robes with gold-colored stoles around their neck, graduates of Epic Virtual Charter School walked across the stage at the Mabee Center arena in Tulsa earlier this year, shaking hands with school officials as they were handed a high school diploma.
“This is just the beginning of the next chapter of your lives,” David Chaney, superintendent and co-founder of Epic, told the students before yellow and blue balloons fell from the rafters, signifying the culmination of hard work that had ended in high school graduation.
But Epic’s graduation ceremony is an event not experienced by a majority of its students.
In a state where the average graduation rate is 83 percent, just 40.2 percent of Epic’s students graduated on time last year, according to recently released school assessment data from the state Department of Education.
Accounting for fifth and sixth year graduates, Epic’s rate remains near 40 percent.
In fact, fewer than half of all students at three of the four virtual charter schools in Oklahoma graduated within six years, according to the same state data.
Leaders of Oklahoma’s growing virtual charter school system promote it as an option of last resort for thousands of students not adequately served in traditional school environments, and despite low overall academic performance, they claim students demonstrate significant growth and will eventually be prepared to graduate.
But low graduation rates bring into question the effectiveness of these computer-based public schools that now educate more than 25,000 students in nearly every community across the state.
“It’s alarming,” Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told The Frontier. “It should cause those school districts and their sponsors to take a very fine-tuned focus to examining why the rate is so low.”
Epic One on One Charter School enrolled nearly 6,500 high school students last year, making it one of the largest high schools in the state. The school’s performance on math, English and science tests are also well below the state average.
However, the school reports near perfect attendance among its students, a claim that has been challenged by other education officials who doubt its enrollment data.
The school is currently under investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which alleged Epic’s founders have embezzled state funds and falsified enrollment records to increase funding.
Epic has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
At Insight School of Oklahoma, a virtual school with nearly 600 students in seventh through 12th grade, the four-year graduation rate last year was 33.6 percent.
At Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, the graduation rate was 47.6 percent.
Oklahoma Connections Academy posted the best graduation rate for a virtual charter school at 54.2 percent.
Rebecca Wilkenson, executive director of the Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the state agency tasked with authorizing virtual schools, said the graduation rates were a “concern” for the board.
“The Board continues to gather data related to graduation, including the number of credit deficient students enrolled, to understand better the students served in virtual charter schools,” Wilkonson said in an emailed statement to The Frontier.
At risk students
Virtual charter school enrollment has exploded with growth in recent years as school leaders say more students are seeking a nontraditional method of education.
Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent at Epic, said the school is committed to improving its graduation rates, but in many cases the students coming to Epic were at risk of dropping out at their previous school.
“We know many of our students are at risk the day they come to us because of the difficulties that led them to us in the first place,” Hickman said in an email to The Frontier. “We work every year to improve the supports we have in place to ensure they have every opportunity to get over the finish line and graduate.”
Hickman said Epic has hired a credit recovery specialist to work with students at risk of dropping out, along with launching a new internship and CareerTech concurrent enrollment program for juniors and seniors.
“I want to underscore that high school students who transfer into Epic often are credit deficient, meaning they were at risk of not graduating at their previous school,” Hickman said. “Many come to us after October 1 and are referred by their residing school because they are in danger of not graduating at that school.”
Leaders at Insight School of Oklahoma also pointed to the school’s large population of at-risk students, including those dealing with behavioral difficulties, pregnancy or parenting, substance issues, physical or psychological trauma and juvenile justice involvement.
“The federal four-year cohort graduation rate was designed for traditional school systems and generally assumes a stable population of students,” said Sheryl Tatum, senior director of academic policy and research at Insight. “It is not a reliable measure for schools with high mobility or those that enroll at-risk students. Online schools like (Insight), for example, generally have higher mobility rates and enroll high numbers of at-risk, under-credited transfer high schoolers.”
Tatum also said Insight was recently awarded a grant from the Oklahoma State Department of Education to support four engagement specialists to work with students at risk of dropping out.
“The grant will also provide several professional development opportunities for teachers and staff that develop skills needed for working with at-risk students,” Tatum said.
Low academic performance and graduation rates have three virtual charter schools, including Epic, identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) as required by federal education standards. The CSI designation gives schools up to three years to improve before the State Department of Education intervenes with specific remedies.
Hofmeister said schools should be given the chance to improve, but there is a sense of urgency in helping students now.
“I want to see schools have the needed time to respond to what they see and the evidence that would drive the right strategy,” Hofmeister said. “But students don’t have one day to lose, let alone a year.”