Charter school enrollment spikes amid pandemic

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

One of Oklahoma’s largest school systems may have recently become the biggest by student enrollment. Unlike most public and private school districts in the state, Epic Public Charter Schools do not heavily rely on traditional campuses and can enroll students from every Oklahoma county.

While a pandemic continues to raise questions about if and how students can return to school for a new academic year, one charter school official says the system that has been steadily growing its student body for years is prepared to handle an enrollment spike.

“Whatever their reasons for coming to us are, we’re ready,” said Assistant Superintendent Shelly Hickman. “We serve kids and families in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but we also serve kids from places like Guymon and Atoka. We understand the uncertainty of the times, and we hope to be a bridge for the families who have chosen to start the school year with us.” 

Epic released enrollment numbers which show a sizable increase in the number of students using the alternative school system. Over 40,600 students were signed up for the 2020-2021 school year and more are expected before classes begin. That is more than 12,500 additional students, almost 45%, compared to the previous year and nearly 19,300 more than the 2018-2019 school year.

Hickman said about 60% of new enrollments are due to the pandemic, while 40 percent of new enrollments have indicated it was unrelated to COVID-19. 

As of the previous school year, only the Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools systems had more students enrolled than Epic schools. Enrollment numbers released this week put Epic above the Tulsa school system’s enrollment from last year and within 2,000 students from overtaking Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Public schools across the state will collect enrollment data in October and the state education department is expected to release that information in December.

While not every county saw more students enrolled in the charter school this year, most saw increased enrollment over last year and some saw numbers double. Only six Oklahoma counties saw Epic enrollment drop, accounting for fewer than 300 students.

Carter County saw the number of students enrolled in Epic for the upcoming school year jump by nearly 35% since the previous school year. Between the 2018-2019 school year and the 2019-2020 school year, Carter County students enrolled in Epic jumped by 21%. 

The recent spike in Epic enrollments may not be finished either. Seven more Carter County students had enrolled in Epic between Tuesday’s announcement and Wednesday’s request for historical enrollment data. The charter school will begin classes on Sept. 8.

Because of the enrollment spike, Epic announced earlier this month that faculty hirings had resumed. The school system’s superintendent pointed to the charter school’s distance learning model as being uniquely positioned to address pandemic anxieties for students and teachers.

"We anticipate many of our families are not going to elect to meet in person," said Superintendent Bart Banfield in a July 16 statement. "So teachers we hire for this coming school year who may not be comfortable being in a classroom this school year could find a good professional fit for themselves this year with EPIC."