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WV Online Charter Schools Far Below Enrollment Projections

West Virginia's first two statewide online charter schools have less than half the number of enrolled students they projected last year, although officials say it's still too early to know what fall will bring.

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(TNS) — West Virginia's first two statewide online charter schools opened this week, with very different enrollment pictures than the two new in-person charters.

The virtual charters have, so far, attracted far fewer students than their "minimum capacity enrollment" projections. The companies running their daily operations say they remain committed to the schools' future.

These enrollment figures are reported by the companies. The state will have certified enrollment numbers, used for funding purposes, in October.

As of Monday, when it opened, West Virginia Virtual Academy reported having 243 students.

That's about half the 500 minimum capacity enrollment the school's backers projected a year ago in their application to open it. Stride Inc. runs the school.

"We will ensure that the school is financially viable," said Todd McIntire, vice president of schools at Stride. The company was formerly known as K12 Inc., and still uses that moniker in advertising.

The school year has already begun. But McIntire said "the number of enrollments is not only increasing, it's accelerating."

He also noted charters are new to West Virginia, and the application required these enrollment projections.

"We knew we were committed to starting a school in West Virginia, regardless of what the enrollment was," he said.

The other statewide online charter, Virtual Preparatory Academy of West Virginia, reported about 125 enrolled students when it opened Monday. That's far below the 350 minimum capacity enrollment it projected a year ago.

Accel Schools runs the Virtual Preparatory Academy. Spokeswoman Courtney Harritt said 50 additional students were verified to enroll in the past week and will be starting soon.

"I would say it's still too early," she said, to say where enrollment will be later this fall.

She likewise noted charters are new in West Virginia, and said Accel forecasted enrollment for this school based on what it has seen in other states where it has operated charters.

"We will run the school anticipating that, as more and more families in this state understand that charter schools are an option for them, that enrollment will continue to increase," she said.

The brick-and-mortar Eastern Panhandle Preparatory Academy, also run by Accel, had 354 children Monday, Harritt said — more than doubling its minimum projection of 160.

There's one more charter in the state: West Virginia Academy, the Morgantown in-person school that's the only charter not run by a private company.

It opened Aug. 2, earlier than the rest, with its board chairman saying it had 475 students. He noted that number was likely to change early on.

As of Tuesday, three weeks in, school administrator Rebecca Bobincheck said enrollment was around 410. That still makes it the largest of West Virginia's first four charters.

"I just got done giving a tour for two students who are going to come tomorrow," said Bobincheck, the school's primary grades director. She said she believes enrollment is going to continue shifting both ways up through about the second week of September.

The West Virginia Department of Education's charter school application form included these lines: "For the Minimum Capacity Enrollment Matrix, include the fewest number of students the school could enroll and still be financially viable," and "you will be considered financially insolvent if you enroll fewer students than in the Minimum Capacity Enrollment Matrix and be required to surrender your charter."

Adam Kissel, chairman of the state Professional Charter School Board that authorized these charters to open, wrote in an email that the charter surrender line is "just the State Board's application being unduly punitive beyond the statute." The state Board of Education oversees the state Department of Education, which oversees traditional West Virginia public schools.

"If a school is under its projected minimum, it just sends a new budget showing that it is financially viable at the lower enrollment," Kissel wrote. "We can amend the charter on that basis. There is not a deadline for that. I am not concerned about virtual schools on this matter."

The Stride Inc. that runs West Virginia Virtual Academy is a publicly traded company. Accel, which runs the other virtual school, is part of a private international firm called Pansophic Learning.

Christy Day, spokeswoman for the education department, said it is up to Kissel's board "to make the decision which you are inquiring about."

Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that are nonetheless freed from many state personnel laws and other public school rules. They can be entirely overseen by unelected boards, which is the case for West Virginia's four charters so far, and can be run daily by hired management companies, which is the case for three of the four.

©2022 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.