Board approves contract for online charter school despite concerning record

By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

The contract for an online charter school was approved by the district this month, despite the school’s failure to meet several performance standards, including a 2018 graduation rate goal of 50 percent.

Florida Cyber Charter Academy (FLCCA) is a Jacksonville-based online charter school with contracts in three counties, including Osceola. The virtual school, which had just over 1,000 students at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, was first recognized by the Osceola County School District in 2012.

Since then, FLCCA has failed to meet a range of performance standards.

‘Great concern’ found in district evaluation

According to the district’s most recent Charter School Renewal Evaluation Instrument, FLCCA met just two out of 17 outlined standards. The school failed to provide adequate student enrollment data, proper support for students with disabilities and English language learners, sufficient proof that graduation requirements were being met and other key measures.

The K-12 online charter set its graduation goal at 50 percent, far below the state average of 82.5 percent, according to the document. It also neglected to provide an adequate plan for graduation rate improvement during its interview with the district.

Only 20 percent of students enrolled in the Osceola FLCCA charter are county residents, a figure described as a “great concern” in the district assessment. Because of a 2017 Florida school-choice overhaul law, local districts can’t bar contracted charter schools from accepting students from outside the county.

“The scores of 80 percent of their students are impacting Osceola County, and the students are not residing in our county,” the evaluation stated.

School board members voice concerns, too

For these and other reasons, the district rejected FLCCA’s request for a five-year contract, and instead, negotiated a three-year agreement with an understanding that the school would no longer accept new high school students until improvements are made, said Debra Pace, Osceola County School District superintendent.

But even three years was too long for School Board Chairman Ricky Booth and others who voted on the item June 5.

“If this is going to have a negative impact on the grade we receive from the state, we can’t afford to allow…charter schools to come in and operate at less then what we expect in this county,” Booth said.

He suggested the contract be approved for one year instead. The suggestion was widely supported by his fellow board members.


District superintendent remains optimistic

Still, Pace was optimistic about FLCCA making good on its promises.

“They have a history of improved performance in the K-8 piece,” Pace said. “We do believe they are working very hard to comply with the expectations of the board.”

Pace cited student testing improvements. In 2015-16, the school received an “I” grade from the state due to its inability to test enough students. But in 2016-17, FLCCA met the 97 percent testing requirement and earned a “C” rating from the state, the evaluation shows.

Sharon Williams, a representative from FLCCA, was called on by School Board Member Jay Wheeler, who openly criticized the charter and asked Williams how the school intends to improve.

“If we had a high school performing at the level you are performing at, I would be at Dr. Pace’s office asking her to fire some people,” he said.

Williams replied that by capping high school student enrollment, FLCCA could focus on retaining the students it already has.

“The longer a student stays in the school, the higher they perform,” Williams said. “The idea is they will understand the model, they will be used to it, they will stay and they will perform to the level and expectations of the district. And that’s what we are committed to do.”

The board ultimately voted to approve FLCCA’s contract with Osceola County for the 2018-19 school year.


FLCCA closes in other counties

This isn’t the first time school districts have questioned Florida Cyber Charter Academy, formerly known as Florida Virtual Academy.

FLCCA still runs operations in Duval and Clay counties, but in February, the organization said it would not renew its charter contract in Pasco County for the upcoming school year.

This follows previous FLCCA closures in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a performance contract, or a “charter” which frees them from many regulations created for traditional public schools, according to the Florida Department of Education website. In 2011, the state legalized online charter schools.

The law also requires districts to use a standard state contract for charter schools, which limits the number of restrictions a school district can plan on a charter school.