A recent vote to close Akron Digital Academy, an online charter school sponsored by Akron Public Schools, was overturned Thursday after the board of directors received public comments from an emotional and angry crowd of nearly 100 parents, educators and students flooding the second floor of the Evans Building in downtown Akron.
“You guys don’t understand,” Macie Phillips, 18, told the board of directors through tears and a shaky voice. She said she would live with out-of-state relatives before enrolling in a traditional public school where she said she had been bullied for her weight and her poverty.
“I was at the point where I didn’t want to live anymore,” she said.
Six people from the nine-member board listened to comments from Phillips and about 10 others. The stories were similar: students bullied and misunderstood, parents outraged at public educators.
The unpaid board of directors then discussed the vote to close the school, made during a March 27 meeting attended by five members.
Academy board member David James, also the superintendent of Akron Public Schools, proposed that motion last week.
“I’m the devil who started all of this,” James said as the board deliberated Thursday.
Phillips’ stepfather, Scott Wood, interrupted James. “So are you changing your mind?” he asked.
“Yes,” James said, prompting jubilant applause from the audience.
James was the only member present Thursday who previously voted to close the online school. Laraine Duncan said Wednesday that she had a medical appointment; Stan Silverman had a previously scheduled engagement at the University of Akron, and Sajit Zachariah was scheduled to be in Columbus on Thursday.
In their absence, the six present board members unanimously overturned the decision and acknowledged that the online school still faces operational issues.
That includes an elementary school with unsustainably low enrollment, a low academic performance, a revolving door of executive directors — three in less than two years — and mounting competition from other online charter schools.
History of school
Akron schools founded the academy in 2002 in an attempt to stymie the flow of students — and state funding — from Akron schools to online charter schools.
Those charter schools have attracted four times as many students since then, and the academy’s enrollment has waned in recent years.
But academy treasurer Todd Akins, also an employee of Akron schools, said the online school is fiscally sound with a cash reserve that has grown each year to total $2.5 million. A state audit of the online school’s finances should be issued next week, a spokesperson for Ohio Auditor David Yost’s office said.
The academy has received the equivalent of a “D” grade on the state’s academic ranking for the past three years. That’s the principal reason for closing the online school, said the members who voted that way last week.
The academy scored better than a quarter of Akron schools and better than 14 of the 26 charter schools operating in the Akron-Canton area, according to Ohio Department of Education records.
“That’s not saying that much,” said Silverman on Wednesday of the charter school comparison. As a “brand new” board member, he voted to close the academy in his second board meeting.
“I’m not going to comment on other charters,” said Duncan, who also works in the mayor’s office. It was the test scores that drove Duncan’s decision. But she would not elaborate on how those scores stacked up against other schools.
The academy received about a 78 out of 120 on the state’s academic ranking system. That’s a six-point jump from the previous year and two points shy of a “continuous improvement” designation, or the equivalent of a “C.”
Director of Operations Dominic Donatelli said it’s a sign that things are finally turning around. He prides the academy in accomplishing the score it did receive, especially because one in six students who attend it are older than 17 and have fewer than five high school credits. They’re part of the dropout recovery program, which charter advocates have said often drag down academic scores.
“Those numbers are exceptional, considering the students we are taking in have failed in [the public school] system or the system has failed them. And, therefore, they are here and they are recovering,” said Linda Lanier, who vocally opposed the decision to close the academy. Lanier and four others were absent during that vote. She was in Washington, D.C., attending a conference hosted by the U.S. Department of Education when five people from the nine-member board met.
All but board president Curtis Howard voted to shut down the school and not simply restructure as the board’s agenda had suggested.
The restructuring would have shut down the elementary portion, which has struggled financially and academically with only 30 students in the kindergarten through fifth-grade classes.
Board directors intend to move forward with some form of restructuring, which had included shutting down the academy’s two satellite locations in churches in Akron’s north and south sides.
The dropout recovery program and the downtown location at the Evans Building would remain open.
It’s part of an effort to curb costs and downsize the program to give students the best chance, Donatelli said.
While the board plans to move forward with restructuring, Donatelli is contacting state education officials and lawyers for the Ohio Coalition for Public Charter Schools. He’s exploring a potential conflict, he said.
The Akron schools retain a fee of up to 2 percent of the digital schools’ state funding.
The relationship between the sponsor — Akron schools — and members James and Ellen McWilliams, who are employed by the sponsor, came into question at Thursday’s meeting. A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said the state is looking into the matter.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com.