First of a three-day series by Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston and reporters from the NewsOutlet.org
By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer
In 2010 at age 17, Al Tonyo dropped out of a vocational high school in Cleveland but still wanted a diploma.
So, he enrolled at Life Skills High School of Cleveland, one of 77 publicly funded Ohio charter schools that markets itself as a flexible alternative to traditional public schools.
Then, he dropped out again.
Tonyo was no exception.
Charter schools such as Life Skills, operated by Akron-based White Hat Management and targeting dropouts, are sending Ohio spinning off in the wrong direction. Dropout rates nationally are on the decline, but Ohio’s rate is on the rise.
Granted, some dropout charter schools graduate nearly half of their students on time, a notable feat considering students enter these programs at least a year behind their peers in traditional high schools.
But that’s not the norm.
Many dropout charter schools, including White Hat’s chain of Life Skills centers, consistently report single-digit graduation rates. Over the course of last school year, more students dropped out of Life Skills than attended on the average day.
Together, they are dragging down the state’s overall rate.
After charter schools received the largest funding boosts per pupil in the most recent state budget, state legislators are toying with the idea of giving them more money to fix Ohio’s dropout problem at a time when charter schools are reporting record-high dropout rates.
“My parents had high hopes for me,” Tonyo, now 22, said. “But I wasn’t able to grasp the bigger picture.”
Tonyo said he lacked motivation, and it didn’t help to be surrounded by fellow dropouts who shared his lack of enthusiasm.
“It was a whole big negative experience. I didn’t even want to be there,” he said of his time at Life Skills.
Sixteen years ago, drop-out recovery charter schools didn’t exist. Now they enroll roughly 14,000 teenagers and young adults, mostly in cities with high poverty and unemployment.
These students may be prone to dropping out. But charter schools especially struggle to retain and graduate them.
The state counts a dropout as an event, not as a person. If one student drops out three times in one year, that is three dropouts. It happens, a lot.
In the 2012-13 school year, more than 5,300 dropouts — a quarter of all Ohio dropouts that year — attended one of two online charter schools: the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow or Ohio Virtual Academy. Collectively, these two charter schools have a dropout rate 45 times higher than traditional public schools, and 10 times higher than the state’s eight largest city school districts.
Another 6,829 students — about a third of all Ohio dropouts — attended charter schools designed specifically for dropouts, among them Invictus and Life Skills. Last year, these dropout charter schools enrolled one percent of Ohio’s public school students but accounted for roughly the same number of dropout events as did public district schools, which enrolled 91 percent of Ohio’s students.
Too old for school
Tonyo has yet to obtain his diploma and unfortunately hit age 22, at which point a free public education is no longer available. He’s welcome to finish this school year through the summer, but he won’t be invited back next school year.
“We do have a lot who kind of slip through the cracks,” said Joe Palmer, principal at Invictus, where Tonyo has earned 17 high school credits since July and is on track to graduate. “They have 17 or 18 credits and they just never make it.”
Until last year, White Hat ran Invictus. The school’s board dropped White Hat and sued the company for not disclosing how money was spent or why academic ranking continued to be poor.
Palmer said it has taken a year to “right the ship.” He’s hoping to improve on White Hat’s 4.2 percent graduation rate — reported in 2012 — by giving flexibility to teachers to try new strategies and by adopting more hands-on learning. Invictus, now operated by Cambridge Education, a subsidiary of a Florida company created by a former White Hat executive, still uses pieces of White Hat’s standard online education model.
Some schools have virtually abandoned the pervasive use of low-cost online instruction. “We don’t do that thing where students sit in a cubicle and stare at a computer,” said Chris Woodward, an administrator at Project Rebuild Community School in Canton. “We give them a lot of attention and care, and that’s what works.”
Now that Tonyo has aged out, he joins 1 million Ohio adults who lack high school diplomas.
Gov. John Kasich took note of the issue and proposed funding community colleges and career technical schools to run adult education pilot programs, which would take in students age 22 to 29 who have at least 10 of the required 21 credits to graduate.
When the legislature received Kasich’s plan, Rep. Gerald Stebelton — a Lancaster Republican and chair of the House Education Committee — added dropout recovery programs run by charter and public schools to the eligible organizations. Stebelton, who did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story, took the language from a separate bill that would have done the same, and had been lobbied by White Hat.
“We’re all pursuing the same goal here,” Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said after hearing that the House had tweaked the governor’s plan. “Obviously our preferred route of tackling this program is how we wrote it.”
Testifying in mid-May before the Senate, Darold Johnson — a lobbyist for the Ohio Federation of Teachers — opposed the addition of charter schools and applauded existing workforce development efforts spearheaded by the governor and Ohio Board of Regents. Those efforts rank Ohio fifth in preparing adults for work, Johnson argued.
“It is a fact that the academic efforts of charter drop-out recovery schools don’t match the state’s success,” he told the Senate. “We don’t think it’s a good option for local school districts to give up their money in order to pay for the enrollment of 22-year-olds when the current system used now works well.”
The Senate reversed Stebelton’s plan, taking charter schools off the list. The provision could re-enter the bill as a conference committee of House and Senate leaders will convene to reconcile legislative differences such as how to fund these programs and who should run them.
Time running out
The disproportionately high dropout rate among dropout charter schools is partly due to the students.
Many of these students have had challenging life experiences and poor support at home.
Sometimes it just takes time for them to grow up.
Tonyo, for example, lacked maturity his first time in school. He grew out of necessity. “I worked a lot of dead-end jobs that let me see the future that I did not want. It’s like I was dying on the inside,” Tonyo said.
Until recently, he worked at a grocery store in Solon. Lacking Internet access at home, he would diligently log onto a computer at work and take extra online classes through Invictus.
Nearing the end of this school year, if he fails to obtain his final two credits he will not be welcome at Invictus or any Ohio high school next year, unless the law changes.
But that hasn’t stopped him or Palmer, his principal, from losing focus.
“Al’s here at 7:30 [a.m.] waiting for us to come in sometimes,” Palmer said. “Because our funding is cut off, we’re not cutting him off. We want him to stay and finish for sure.”