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What's Next for Thousands of ECOT Students, Teachers

Photo of Abbey Lopez with her mother, Jennifer

A judge has appointed a special master to oversee the assets of ECOT--The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow-- until the Ohio Supreme Court can decide its case over student enrollment, possibly as soon as next month.

In that case, education officials say the online charter school owes the state $80 million after ECOT embellished its enrollment numbers. But the school contends it shouldn’t have to pay the money back after the state improperly changed the reporting criteria.

ECOT closed Friday, forcing nearly 12,000 students to change schools, and leaving students, parents and teachers trying to figure out what to do next.

"School's just never felt right to me since I was in kindergarten," 18-year-old Abbey Lopez laughed, sitting around her New Albany dining room table with her mom, Jennifer, and her dad Chris. "It's just never been my place."

Abbey is your average high school senior. She admits she has trouble waking up in the morning and she’d rather hang out with her friends than study. But even without those typical teenage distractions, Abbey says school is hard for her.

Photo of New Albany High School
New Albany High School, where Abbey Lopez returned to Monday to finish her senior year.

She spent 2 1/2 years at New Albany High School where sometimes her classes just moved too fast and she hated jumping from one subject to another in a seven-period day. Abbey’s mom says she could see it was giving her daughter anxiety.

“I would pick you up from school, and sometimes she was crying,” Mrs. Lopez said, addressing her daughter at first. “She’d get in the car and she’d be a little tearful.”

So last year, Abbey’s parents enrolled her in ECOT -- the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Abbey said she could, and often did, spend an entire day on one subject. She interacted with her teachers one-on-one, over the phone or through email and wasn’t embarrassed to ask for help.

“It’s always made me feel dumb, to be honest,” she says of her traditional brick-and-mortar school. “And ECOT made me realize how smart I am.”

'They're behind a wall, a screen, so their guard is dropped. They're more relaxed. Those types of situations help these kind of kids.'

This semester, Abby finished her pre-calculus course weeks early because she says she just needs to work on her own, without distractions.

Who is an ECOT student?
ECOT’s supervisor of student wellbeing, Danielle Hier of Kent, said the school catered to children facing a variety of challenges, kids like Abbey who don't feel comfortable in a traditional setting but others, too.

“Whether its physical resources to get them to the classroom at a brick-and-mortar school, the logistics of doing so, clothing them, bullying,” Hier said.

Some students have children of their own, or severe physical disabilities, she said, but ECOT put them all on an equal playing field.

“They’re behind a wall, a screen, so their guard is dropped. They’re more relaxed. Those types of situations help these kind of kids,” she added. 

ECOT's closure
But after two audits, the Ohio Department of Education says ECOT inflated how many of those kids it was actually teaching and overbilled the state by some $80 million over the 2015 and 2016 academic years.This school year, the department cut ECOT’s monthly payments by $3 million as a way to recoup that money.

ECOT has contested the claims in court. School officials announced in the fall the decreased payments were depleting its savings and ECOT would close early this year. The school has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to step in, but justices have refused so far, and last week ECOT's charter sponsor voted to pull its support, closing its doors.

That left teachers like Sheri Dornhecker of Bolivar scrambling Friday.

Photo of Sheri Dornhecker
Sheri Dornhecker rushed Friday to finish her final grades.

"When I woke up this morning, there were 301 assignments in there," she said as she looked at her inbox.

A senior English teacher -- Abbey's English teacher --Dornhecker finalized her grades in a couple of hours so students could get their transcripts and enroll in new schools this week. Dornhecker said she was angry when she got the final word of ECOT's closure Thursday night.

“What did you accomplish?" she asked, pointing her anger to the state Department of Education. "You closed us down. You sent 12,000 kids out the door and now we have 800 people umemployed."

Dornhecker retired from Ohio’s public school system after more than 30 years in a traditional classroom. Her ECOT salary is 40 percent of her current income, an income her family relies on.

“I mean we have [student] loans that are so big, you know, for both kids," she said. Dornhecker is looking for a job at another online school. She said she won't return to a traditional classroom. 

'For a lot of these kids, this was the school that was their team, their support group, their second family.'

Next steps
With four kids ranging in age from 11 to 17, Danielle Hier is looking for work too, crossing her fingers for an opening she’s found at Akron’s I Promise School — sponsored by Cavs star Lebron James -- that will open in the fall.

Abbey Lopez will finish the school year at New Albany High School. She needs two more credits, but with acceptance letters to a couple of colleges already, and possibly more on the way, she said she has the motivation to finish. But she knows other students won't have it as easy.

Hollie Nesbitt said that includes her 15-year-old daughter Bria.

Over the weekend, Nesbitt started enrolling Bria in another online school, but in the end, has decided that home schooling is the best option for now. Aside from figuring out their next step academically, Nesbitt has had to help Bria transition emotionally as well.

"She feels abandoned," Nesbitt said. "That can be really devastating for children."

"That's something that I would love the Ohio Department of Education to really look at is how this is affecting children," she added. "This school was really important to them. For a lot of these kids, this was the school that was their team, their support group, their second family."

Abbey Lopez said she feels for kids like Bria, who won't have the same option that helped her succeed. Abbey said the state, the Department of Education, the courts, they aren't listening. 

“If they understood even 1 percent of why we go there, then they would now how much it helps people like me, and there’s no way they could do that,” she said.

The Ohio Supreme Court will hear the next set of arguments in ECOT’s case Feb. 13th in Columbus.