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Surge Pushes Epic Charter Schools to Highest Enrollment in State

By Nuria Martinez-Keel via TheOklahoman

Epic Charter Schools has grown into the largest school system in Oklahoma amid pandemic demands and increasing interest.

The virtual charter school counted 38,026 students on Wednesday and is adding 1,000 new students a day, said Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent of communications. This exceeds the previous No. 1, Oklahoma City Public Schools, which predicts 34,867 students this fall. Tulsa Public Schools projects 34,405 students, not including sites for alternative schools and partnership programs.

The spike in enrollment began this month, Hickman said. If the current trend holds, administrators project a student body of 46,000 by Oct. 1.

The coronavirus pandemic forced traditional districts to embrace virtual learning as school closures hindered face-to-face classes. Many families opted for Epic despite the digital push from other schools.

“Not all virtual is the same,” Hickman said. “I think that families are starting to understand that.”

The Epic One-on-One digital platform is available in all 77 counties in Oklahoma. Epic Blended Learning Centers offer physical learning sites in the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metro areas. Both are free public charter schools.

Epic grew rapidly since its founding in 2011, becoming the third largest school system in the state in the 2019-20 school year. But, the latest surge was unexpected, even to Epic officials. Little more than a month ago, the virtual charter projected modest growth over the next school year.

Epic co-founder Ben Harris predicted enrollment increases of 15% to 20% over the next year in a June 11 presentation to the Rose State College Board of Regents, which oversees Epic’s Blended Learning Centers.

“We are seeing our growth rate level off a little bit,” Harris said in his presentation in June. “Partly because of the size we are, the growth rate is just mathematically lower. Secondly, there’s going to be a limit to the students that want to go to school our way and with us.”

In July, enrollment skyrocketed. Epic is now experiencing about 65% growth over last year.

Surveys of enrolling families indicate about 60% are choosing Epic because of the pandemic and 40% for other reasons, Hickman said. Administrators are hiring more teachers to maintain an average roster of 28 students per educator.

While many districts are offering one online curriculum, Epic has a menu of about 20 online programs. The virtual school system has provided online classes far longer than most Oklahoma school districts.

Parents view Epic as a more attractive option than at-home education with traditional public schools, said Robert Ruiz, a parent advocate and south Oklahoma City developer.

“When they look at the districts that they're in, first of all they have the experience with the attempt at distance learning (in the spring). For most families it was nothing; there was no learning going on,” Ruiz said. “Do I want to stay here and take my chances with someone doing this for the first time, or do I want to go to someone who’s been doing this for years?”

Oklahoma City Superintendent Sean McDaniel said traditional districts can compete in the virtual realm.

(Read the original article here)



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