The state Board of Education placed White Oak School District on probation Thursday after raising concerns that of the more than 970 students enrolled in White Oak, only 51 actually attend classes at the rural northeast Oklahoma school.
The rest of the students live throughout the state and have transferred into White Oak's virtual school, which is run by the Virginia-based online education provider K12.
State schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett said her concern was that taxpayer money was going to White Oak for the 920 virtual school students, and she wanted to make certain the students were achieving academically.
"We are trying to develop an oversight process that doesn't interrupt the instructional process, while ensuring to the taxpayer that their money is not going down a rat hole that may or may not be credible," she said.
She said her concerns were satisfied by the presentation from Mary Gifford, K12 senior vice president of the central region. However, not all of the board agreed.
In the first vote, the board denied White Oak accreditation — a decision that would have forced all of the students in White Oak and its virtual school to find another school this year.
Garrett asked the board to reconsider, and at first the board only restored accreditation to the physical building in White Oak, but finally in a vote of 4 to 3 the board approved accreditation with probation.
The staunchest critic of the virtual school was board member Tim Gilpin, who said he was concerned students could be sitting at home unsupervised and not learning with the virtual program.
"They should be physically there dealing with them," he said.
Gifford said a thorough enrollment process makes it clear to parents that there must be a caring adult in the home to supervise the student during approximately seven hours daily of instruction.
She said half of that time the student logs onto the computer for direct interaction with teachers employed by K12, while the other half involves work assigned in textbooks or lab work.
"We have an obligation not to let that student languish in our setting," she said.
During the school's first year of operation, Gifford said all 400 virtual students drove to White Oak and stayed at a Holiday Inn to take state and federally mandated tests.
She said the school's test results met the state's benchmarks.
"If we don't make (adequate yearly progress) we pay the ultimate price of going out of business immediately," Gifford said.
The White Oak School Board approved a contract with K12 that gives the for-profit company 95 percent of the state aid for its virtual students and allows the district to retain 5 percent or $100,000, whichever is greater, as an administrative fee, Gifford said.
Six virtual schools are operating in Oklahoma right now. After White Oak lost its high school because of low enrollment, K12 moved its virtual high school program to Wynona Public Schools, another rural district about 80 miles from White Oak.
Gifford said about 75 students are enrolled in that school.
Then there are four other virtual schools run by other online school companies such as Advanced Academics and Illuminated Learning.
"We're concerned, period, about this whole dynamic that is happening, but we want to put our arms around it and guide it for the taxpayer and the student who is involved," Garrett said.
A task force was created by the state legislature this session to evaluate virtual schools and develop rules to govern the often for-profit companies.
The board also discussed in executive session Thursday a court ruling to the effect that the state must fund a proposed virtual charter high school.
The board voted to appeal the ruling that Epic 1 on 1 Charter School could serve as its own district, while moving forward with the school's accreditation process.