ECOT students, families adjust

When Shanna Fronko returned from a medical appointment Jan. 19, her middle school son told her his school had closed.

That’s how Fronko, who lives in Little Hocking, said she found out the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was out of operation, leaving her seventh-grade son high and dry.

Fronko said she knew from reading news accounts that the all-digital charter school was in trouble, but she expected to hear directly from the school if things came to the worst and it had to close down. She received no notice, she said.

Fronko and her son are among an estimated 12,000 students left scrambling for an education after the company shut down its electronic instruction system Jan. 19, also leaving hundreds of teachers without jobs.

Her son is now enrolled at Belpre City Schools, and Fronko said initially things appear to be going well. The family came back to southeastern Ohio from Florida after the death of her husband. She said her son was traumatized by the tragedy and enrolled in ECOT in part because she felt attending public school would not be suitable for him.

He had been home-schooled in Florida, she said, and her daughter had also been attending an electronic charter school, Ohio Connections Academy. ECOT, she said, worked for her son because he got individual guidance and attention from teachers and was able to develop relationships with other students from around the state, with whom he participated in online gaming after school hours.

“He’s had it hard, a very rough go of things,” said Fronko, 40. “Things were going well, he was progressing through school. We were really happy, and I was really impressed. My son had tutoring, extra help, ECOT was amazing that way. He didn’t have to deal with that anxiety. He made friends with kids online, they had a lot of the same problems he has. They got together on Steam, the online gaming site. It really worked for him.”

Her son had been enrolled with ECOT since October, she said.

The end came suddenly and without notice, she said.

“Outside of the publicity, we didn’t know about the shutdown. You assume they would have held out until the end of the year,” she said. “Who closes school in the middle of the year? I was shocked. Who does that? It doesn’t even make sense.”

Belpre schools have been helpful and cooperative, she said.

“They’re going to work with me and make it work,” she said. Her son, she said, already has expressed interests in art and music, extracurriculars and electives that he couldn’t get through ECOT.

“ECOT closing down could be a blessing, or it could make things worse, I’m just disappointed because things were going pretty well,” she said.

Washington County school districts late last year reported a total of about 50 students who were enrolled in ECOT, but they haven’t seen a flood of students coming into their schools. Marietta City Schools this week reported that six had enrolled, Belpre received two, Fort Frye and Frontier each reported one. A number for Warren wasn’t immediately available.

Students also have other online options, such as Ohio Connections Academy, but Fronko said she checked that option and didn’t find it suitable. OCA is largely self-directed study, she said, and students don’t get the type of individual attention offered by ECOT.

Another Washington County ECOT student, Mariah Parks, managed to avoid being stranded in mid-year. Parks, who lives in Marietta, said this week she had accumulated enough credits before the school closed to graduate. She had been an ECOT student since sixth grade, and she’s enrolled in Ohio University, ready to start in the fall semester.

“They’re mailing my diploma. I was going to stay with them until the end of this semester, but I talked to a counselor and she’s like, ‘We’ll have to send you back to Marietta schools,’ and I was like, “No way,'” Parks said.

ECOT’s closure was the consequence of an enrollment audit conducted by the Department of Education indicating that the school had vastly overstated the number of students it served, based on samples of log-in records. The state is seeking the return of nearly $80 million. The school said it couldn’t continue operating under the schedule of repayment the state set up, which would have returned the money out of its revenues over a 24-month period.

Many parents. teachers and students have come forward in support of the school, but like most online charters its academic and graduation rates are abysmal in comparison to most public school districts.

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said he agrees that the state should get the money back but finds the way in which the Department of Education acted heavy-handed and inconsiderate of the needs of ECOT students.

“Because of the action taken by the Department of Education, 12,000 students were cut off in the middle of the school year, 2,300 of them seniors,” he said. “It’s a situation where they’re thrown out into the street and told to find somewhere to go.”

For the students, returning to public school is complicated, he said.

“There are a variety of reasons people are in electronic schools to begin with,” he said. “And it’s not an easy integration. Courses have to be synched up, there are a lot of challenges this creates.”

Additionally, he said, recovering the money from ECOT is now going to be doubly difficult.

“If it shuts down, there’s not going to be a lot of money forthcoming,” he said. But primarily, he said, it’s about the children.

“I really feel terrible for the people affected. They didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “It would have been thoughtful and helpful if the department had done something more than saying, ‘Good luck.'”

He said he appreciates the efforts of public schools “to find something for these students.”

Thompson said he is urging the government to intervene, to find a solution that at least would get ECOT students through the end of the year.

That solution for now includes smaller online charters and brick-and-mortar public schools. Districts have notified families stranded by the ECOT closure that their children are welcome, superintendents in Washington County said.

Stephanie Starcher, superintendent of Fort Frye Local Schools, said families were notified by mail that her schools were ready to assist, and one of the 10 in the district enrolled.

One also enrolled in Frontier Local Schools, superintendent Brian Rentsche said.

“When we heard that ECOT might close several months ago, we as a district reached out to those particular students,” he said. “We were able to at that time have one student enroll from ECOT. We are continuing efforts to make contact with other displaced ECOT students and their families.”

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton said at a board of education meeting Monday that six ECOT students had enrolled in the district since its closure the previous week.

Belpre City Schools CFO Lance Erlwein said the districts that enroll ECOT students will receive some compensation from the state, although not as much as ECOT received. Erlwein said the state grant per student is $6,000, but each district has, among other factors, an index as part of the complex calculation that determines how much state money each district gets.

The calculation includes a reduction in state funding based on property taxes, and Erlwein said once that is applied, Belpre gets about $2,738 per student, and the compensation for ECOT students would be further pro-rated according to the remaining time in the school year. Erlwein also noted that students who come to Belpre through open enrollment — that is, students who live in other districts but choose to attend Belpre schools — are funded for the full $6,000.

From the district’s point of view, it was ceding $6,000 for every student from its district who attended school in a different district, including ECOT.

“It is less a case of us realizing a financial gain as it is avoiding the net loss for for any student that returns to us from open enrollment to ECOT or any other district,” he said.

ECOT still has a chance to survive, although the odds are long. The Ohio Supreme Court has agreed to hear its argument against having to repay the state over the enrollment issue.

Andy Brush, a Columbus businessman, is chairman of the ECOT board. He said Friday the ECOT board is still in place and some employees are still working, winding up administrative tasks such as transferring student records, closing out the books and taking care of financial matters. He said the suddenness of ECOT’s closure was unavoidable.

“I don’t think we could have done anything more than we did” in terms of notifying students, he said. “There were a lot of moving pieces that came together very quickly. We were at the mercy of the Department of Education and the courts, and more recently our sponsor. The last thing we wanted was to tell our students the school would have to close and then have some last-minute deliverance … we were in active negotiations with the Department of Education to seek a resolution that at the very least would have ultimately allowed us to remain open through the end of the school year.”

The school’s sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, voted to close the school Jan. 18, the same day that the Department of Education rejected ECOT’s proposal to remain open for the rest of the school year.

Brush said that even if the Ohio Supreme Court rules in ECOT’s favor, it’s unclear how it would go forward.

“The state would have to reimburse us, but I’m not sure what the next steps would be,” he said.

“There are some students in this state for whom a traditional public education doesn’t work,” he said. “There are some options, and ECOT was one, and it was the best for some of them. From my perspective as a member of the ECOT board and as a taxpayer, it was all about choice, giving kids some flexibility in their education. When a situation like this plays out leaving 12,000 students high and dry in the middle of the academic year, it’s a very sad and shameful situation.”

At a glance

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow

¯ Founded: 2000.

¯ Closed: Jan. 19, 2018.

¯ Enrollment: 12,000 (estimate).