Some Epic students transfer out

Ben Felder / The Frontier

The Epic charter school office in Oklahoma City is shown.

Epic virtual charter school has grown into one of the largest school systems in the state but it has also become one of the largest producers of transfers, sending thousands of students in and out of schools across Oklahoma throughout the academic year.

With an enrollment of 21,305 last school year, Epic had nearly 9,000 transfers, according to data obtained from the state Department of Education.

That's a mobility rate of 42 percent, which is twice the rate in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa public school districts.

Epic has drawn criticism for its high transfer rate, including from some district leaders who claim students who leave return in a matter of weeks or months.

Epic has promoted itself as a sort of alternative school for students who do not find a traditional school setting to be a great fit.

Epic is a public school that receives state funding for each student.

The Frontier shared the transfer data with Epic to allow for comment and school officials said at least 1,800 were students counted twice because they enrolled in Epic, transferred to another school and then transferred back.

Beginning in 2021, students will not be allowed to transfer into a virtual charter school more than once a year because of a law change approved this week by the state Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt. In addition to capping transfers, House Bill 2905 also requires school transcripts be provided to a student's new school within three days of enrollment and nearly doubles the amount of instructional activities a virtual charter school student must complete to be considered in attendance.

"Virtual schools meet a real educational need for some students in Oklahoma, but policy hasn't been able to keep pace with this type of model," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said in a statement last week.

Removing double transfer students from the list, along with what Epic officials say are early graduates and transfers from one Epic school to another, still leaves nearly 5,600 students who transferred in and out of Epic during the 2018-19 school year.

"You could focus on about 1 in 4 EPIC students leaving in the previous school year or that 3 out of 4 tried and found that our distance learning model was for them," said Shelly Hickman, an assistant superintendent at Epic. "We also know from surveys of families who have left EPIC that more than 90 percent would recommend it to a family seeking a distance learning school."

For years school administrators across the state have complained about the high number of transfers in and out of Epic. In reviewing emails between the state Department of Education and Epic from 2012 to early 2019, The Frontier found at least 49 times a school district official claimed Epic was unresponsive to requests for transcripts or that the virtual charter school was requesting records for students who had not officially left the district.

"The exchange of records (with Epic) is typically not a smooth process," Latta Public Schools Superintendent Cliff Johnson told The Frontier.

In 2018, Johnson sent an email to the state Department of Education that said Epic was not responding to multiple phone calls seeking the records of a student who transferred from Epic to Latta.

"I have personally witnessed faxes sent to my office requesting records for students that have never attended our school," Johnson wrote in his 2018 email to the state Department of Education. "Epic has a reputation of not returning phone calls, not sending records, etc."

Other emails included claims by superintendents that transcripts were being requested for students who were still actively enrolled in their district.

Many emails also showed Epic officials complaining to the state about a school district not handing over student transcripts.

HB2905 also require an orientation for all new virtual charter school students .

"The best part (of the bill) for me was the introductory period that helped them understand the rigor of that school and if they will have the discipline and support system in their home to make it through before they formally enroll," said Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa.

Hickman said new Epic students already go through an evaluation to best determine their academic needs.

She disputed the criticism that students who quickly transfer back to a school district are putting a strain on the school.

"The vast majority of the students who are coming into Epic are behind one or more grade levels," Hickman said. "That means they are coming into us with learning deficiencies. If they were only with us for a brief stint of time how are we to blame for all of the learning deficiencies?"

The Frontier is a nonprofit, independent news source based in Tulsa. Frontier content is republished in The Transcript through a special content agreement. For more information on The Frontier, visit readfrontier.org.

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