COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As one of the nation's largest online charter schools faces the possibility that it could abruptly close after this week, students like Isabella Aquino who have found a haven in the Ohio e-school face uncertainty about how they would continue their education.
"I have no idea," said the 16-year-old junior, who takes some college classes and is disinclined to brick-and-mortar schools because of their less flexible scheduling and her past experiences, including with a teacher who she says bullied her over her Christian beliefs.
Many of the roughly 12,000 students turned to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow because of illnesses, disabilities, bullying or other struggles that made traditional school environments challenging or impossible. The uncertainty over the school's future amid a dispute with the state has added adversity as students, parents and teachers try to make backup plans halfway through the school year.
ECOT has warned for months that it's running out of money because of state efforts to recoup $60 million in disputed funding, but the possibility of a mid-year closure became more imminent when its sponsor — an entity that provides oversight — moved to cut ties last week, citing the e-school's financial troubles. It can't operate without a sponsor.
Public school districts would have to accept local ECOT students, but some families say there were reasons they left those schools and won't go back. They like the flexibility students get with the mix of self-paced work, live online sessions with teachers and other opportunities, such as organized field trips.
Isabella's mother, Anna Aquino, hasn't settled on an alternative for her teenager. She'd lean toward homeschooling her younger daughter, an ECOT sixth-grader, but feels forced into that choice.
"I'd like to make (that decision) because I made it, not because I had to make it," the Canal Winchester woman said.
ECOT's case is being closely watched because it could more broadly affect regulation of online schools and how students' participation is tracked for funding accountability. Smaller e-schools have closed in disputes with the state, but a mid-year closure on this scale would surely ripple through conversation in the virtual learning community, which has grown significantly in recent years.
The country had about 278,000 students enrolled in full-time online schools in 2015-16, according to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, and other groups put the estimate higher. Most of those students are in charters, not district-run schools.
The state of Ohio says ECOT didn't sufficiently document student participation, but ECOT says officials wrongly changed criteria to adjust funding.
Even if ECOT closes, some supporters hope it might reopen if the Ohio Supreme Court sides with the school in its challenge to how officials tallied student logins to determine ECOT was overpaid. The case is being heard next month.
Meanwhile, some students are anxious. When word spread about the sponsor's decision, some high schoolers in the career and technical education program voiced so many questions and worries that their teachers couldn't teach that day, said Laura McNamara, an assistant principal.
"This is not their fault, but yet they are the ones that are going to have to deal with the fallout, and for some, it's going to be very challenging," McNamara said.
Heidi Wade, of Mansfield, wants her eighth-grader, Lestat, to continue with a specific program that helps him learn to read despite his dyslexia. She refuses to send him to a brick-and-mortar school, so she's been researching other Ohio e-schools that might have room and be able to accommodate him.
Lestat is aware of ECOT's predicament, but has carried on with schoolwork.
"He is taking it day by day, like we all are," Wade said.
ECOT has said it's working to remain open.
The sponsor, Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, said Wednesday that its governing board will consider any remedies ECOT proposes before deciding whether to suspend the sponsorship. If the closure process proceeds, it could be complicated as thousands of student records are redistributed and parents sort out schooling options.
Ohio's Department of Education says that no ECOT student should feel pressured to drop out of school altogether and that it's prepared to help families identify other options, if needed.
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