Earlier this month, Akron Digital Academy quietly went out of business after repayments to the state became too much of a burden on the virtual charter school’s budget.
The school’s monthly payments on the $2.8 million the state said it owed for not properly tracking its enrollment created a negative financial outlook through the next school year, said the school’s executive director, Linda Daugherty.
Akron Digital Academy’s closure comes as the Ohio Department of Education makes new efforts to hold e-schools accountable following a watershed state audit found that the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), Ohio’s largest virtual academy, could not produce adequate records for 70 percent of its 15,300 students.
As state lawmakers continue to crack down on e-school enrollment, online schools like Akron Digital Academy and ECOT are facing the threat of closure as they work through muddled enrollment tracking and state requirements.
“It was not fair. If [the state] had told us ahead of time, we would’ve made the changes,” Daugherty said. “We limped along … We made as many cuts as we possibly could to our budget, but it just came down to us running out of time.”
Akron Digital Academy was founded in 2002 by former Akron Education Association President Neil Quirk. At the time, as many charter schools were pitched by the industry’s founder, the new school was meant to provide an alternative for Akron Public Schools students who were leaving for other charter schools and wanted more digital learning. It served students in grades 6-12.
Akron Public Schools was the sponsor until 2013, when Superintendent David James proposed closing the school for a range of issues. The school continually posted low academic scores. And enrollment had dipped to about 600 students as competition crept in from other charter schools, which were springing up in Akron.
James served on Akron Digital Academy’s board of directors at the time. The other board members blocked his attempt to close the school. And the district severed ties with the academy a month later by dropping its sponsorship agreement.
A new sponsor, the Warren Educational Service Center, saved the online school from immediate closure. But the enrollment issues ensued.
Akron Digital Academy received $3 million for 375 students in the 2015-16 school year.
That same year, the Ohio Department of Education began reviewing how many hours each student spent learning at virtual charter schools, often remotely from a computer at home or the library. The department found many could not back up their enrollment claims.
The state found Akron Digital Academy, for example, could not prove students were spending five hours a day on class work, as required by state law. The state also questioned the academy’s special education enrollment.
Despite claiming 375 total students, the state’s accounting of educational hours put enrollment at a mere 73 students — 80 percent less than it had reported. The school was told that year that it would have to repay the difference in installments that became too much to bear.
Daugherty said it wasn’t an issue of fudging numbers — it was an issue with the student login process. The software used by Akron Digital Academy didn’t allow Daugherty to track how long students were working.
She said the school switched to a new system after receiving word of the state’s final review — but by then, the school was already overestimating 2016-17 enrollment, too.
Effort to repay
In this past school year, Akron Digital Academy began repaying the $2.8 million it owed the state for the previous two school years in monthly payments.
Daugherty and Warren ESC Treasurer Alleyn Unversaw said the tracking of actual hours spent learning — or what the state calls durational review of attendance — was a requirement that the state developed and implemented “retroactively” for 2016.
“If they had given us time to react and implement, a vast majority — especially Akron Digital [Academy] — would’ve been able to put the proper procedures in place to withstand it and do what’s right,” Unversaw said. “It’s a very, very transparent school. They didn’t have enough time to respond.”
But ODE spokesperson Brittany Halpin said that since 2010, manuals for conducting annual reviews of virtual charter schools have stated that the state may consider durational data in its review.
Halpin said the state began looking at durational data “in light of several issues that were identified in other community schools prior to 2015-2016.”
Among those was Ohio Virtual Academy, which enrolls 9,000 students and is now the largest online charter school following the collapse of ECOT. In 2015, allegations arose that the school failed to dis-enroll hundreds of chronically truant students in order to increase its attendance numbers and, in turn, its funding.
End of the road
The building that held Akron Digital Academy at 133 Merriman Road is now empty. It is owned by the Akron Hebrew Congregation, which moved to Bath in 2011.
Daugherty said the school alerted parents about its closure June 8, just three days after the board made its decision to close it.
She said the school has held “school of choice” fairs to help students determine where to continue their education, whether at another charter school, online or back in Akron Public Schools, which offers a digital curriculum.
“We’re very sad for our students, very sad for our parents and for our staff. We have a lot of concern and compassion for our parents,” Daugherty said. “We really hope they make sure they get to other school districts and continue with their education.”
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.
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