Ep. 192: Cool Schools with Epic Charter Schools

July 9, 2020

In this episode, we chat with Ben Harris, co-founder of Epic Charter Schools. Learn how this free, public, online charter school uses learning centers, a learning fund and more.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today, we have a new episode of my series Cool Schools with Epic Charter Schools. Now, Epic Charter Schools is a really, really interesting twist on online education. It is a free, public online charter school predominantly located in Oklahoma, but with some branches in California as well. When I say that it’s an interesting twist, it actually has a couple programs within it. One they call their One-on-One Program, which is a more traditional online environment, though it does require some regular in-person meeting with real flesh-and-blood educators in person, but students have a wide choice in the curriculum that they do, but they meet with this Oklahoma-certified teacher regularly.

One of the things that’s interesting and we get into in this conversation, students who participate in that program actually get access to this learning fund. It’s managed by the school, but they’re able to actually go out in the community and purchase things. These are some of the extracurricular activities or community events that your traditional online school isn’t able to do, so if you want to take karate lessons or play on a team or those things, you actually have the funds to be able to do it, which is, I think, really interesting and we’re talking about.

And then the second piece are these learning centers. Epic operates actual brick-and-mortar places where students can go in and, while they may be working through the same curriculum that folks are doing online, they’re actually in a traditional school building, so they have teachers that can help them, there is food provided to them, other activities. Kids can play outside the more traditional trappings of school, even if the students are working through their own personalized curriculum.

I’m talking to Ben Harris today, who was one of the co-founders of Epic, and we’ll talk through both that one-on-one, but actually drill down a lot to talking about how the learning fund works and how these learning centers work as well. Online education has been something that’s been controversial and I know in lots of places around the country has been quite disappointing in how well, or perhaps more accurately, how poorly it has worked, but I’m always interested in meeting people who are trying to learn lessons from the past. It’s difficult to do things that are new and different and so talking to Ben about how he looked at other places that hadn’t necessarily been as successful in the past and try to improve upon that and fix the problems that other people have and provide new opportunities, so it’s a really interesting conversation. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Ben Harris, co-founder of Oklahoma’s and California’s Epic Charter Schools.

Ben Harris, welcome to the Cool Schools podcast. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Ben Harris: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

Mike McShane: Epic has kind of a lot of moving parts. I wonder if you would be so kind as to give us the 30,000-foot overview of how Epic works?

Ben Harris: Sure. Well, we’re in the process of completing our ninth year in operation. We are a charter school network. We manage three schools—one in Southern California and two in Oklahoma. Those three schools are all blended learning models, and we serve combined about 33,000 students at the end of this year. And a little less than a thousand of those students are in California and the remainder are in our two schools in Oklahoma.

We really have borrowed a lot of things from a lot of different schools. I used to do charter school development in a past life for another charter network and I got the opportunity to really look at a lot of different school models. And one thing I noticed is it felt like, to me, that everybody did something well. So I tried to remember that, and when we were creating the Epic model, we borrowed pieces and parts of a lot of different schools that had had some success, even from different states. And then also, over time, Epic has evolved, and a lot of the things we do that we’re really proud of that we think make us unique have been contributed and thought of by our employees and our parents and various team members and stakeholders, so the school is unique in that we weave parental choice throughout the whole model.

We serve grades pre K-12, and we’re a blended model because although we don’t have a building that kids come to every day, our teachers are hired proximal to their students, so they meet with their students as often as a weekly basis and at least every three weeks. Obviously, in a COVID environment, those meetings are happening by video conference, but they typically take place face-to-face, and then there’s also a lot of computer-based interaction with families as well. When we do face-to-face interaction, we either do it in the student’s home, in a public library—which actually public libraries are most popular meeting spot—and then we also have a network of Epic offices that don’t look like a school campus, they’re a smaller footprint, but they’re a safe and clean place that’s quiet where teachers can have meetings with their students and we have those sprinkled throughout the state and we’re actually expanding that footprint over the next year.

Every student completes an individualized learning plan in our model. As part of that, they actually have a say in which teacher they get and what certifications that a teacher has. Our teachers actually teach all subjects to all grade levels, which is probably the most unique pedagogical aspect of our school. For teachers that are teaching outside of their certification area, we have a support infrastructure that allows them to get the help and support when they feel like they’re over their head on any particular subject, so that results in team teaching, or one of our staff helping them with lesson planning, etc., or even doing direct teaching with their students, and it works pretty well.

When they do their individual learning plan, every family gets to choose their own curriculum. We have probably 20 different core curriculums and about 25 different supplemental curriculums and each family gets a budget allocation that they can use to select their instructional technology. If they don’t need Internet, they can get a MiFi device, which will provide Internet in their home, they can choose which curriculum they want to use, and they can also choose a variety of different extracurricular activities. We have a few thousand vendors that they can use and select from and the reason for that is we’re a statewide school, so a lot of those vendors are community-based, so our directory is large enough that there’s almost always people that are providing extracurricular activities for their students that are in or near their community.

That works out really well because a lot of virtual blended learning models have a tough time offering extracurricular activities because of the geographic reach, so that allows us to do that and do so and families, communities and families really love it. So, we call that the Student Learning Fund, and that’s something that makes our school very unique, and again, another set of choices for families to make in collaboration with their teacher.

Mike McShane: Don’t mean to interrupt you there—

Ben Harris: No, no.

Mike McShane: But I think that’s an important thing to think about. When a student enrolls in Epic, I’m thinking of this from the student perspective or the family perspective, their average day, they are working at home through a personalized curriculum, and not just personalize them but they have the choice of what curriculum to use, but in addition to that, they have access to these funds that they can use, so what are some examples of the vendors that folks are taking those funds to?

Ben Harris: Oh, karate lesson, art lesson, piano lesson, soccer teams, clubs sports of all kinds, so really, just about anything that a typical school provides and then a lot more, because you’re not just limited to whatever the school’s offerings are. If you have a vendor in your community that you want to, let’s say, go take an art lesson from and they’re not on our menu, a vendor can go online and become a vendor to the school by going through an online process and it’s pretty efficient pretty quick, so we’re constantly adding vendors to our list.

It’s important to note that we’re not actually providing the family money. We’re simply managing a budget allocation that the family gets some say over how that is spent, but it works out great and we process the transaction directly to the vendor. The vendor provides the service to the family, any school assets that are not consumable assets continue to be the school property, and then when the family, if they would draw from the school or if they graduate, they have to return all school assets that the school purchased for them.

Mike McShane: That’s important to make sure for financial transparency and so that people don’t just walk away with money, you are the ones who were processing all of those things. Now, I’m also aware you have these blended learning centers. Could you talk about those?

Ben Harris: Yeah. About three years ago, what we realized is in our model, if you are a youngster, let’s say below sixth grade, and you don’t have a parent at home because you either have a single parent that’s working all day or you have both parents that work, in essence, you were blocked out of our model because our school does not have any sort of daycare aspect and we didn’t want anybody to be blocked out of our model, so we started blended learning centers, which are facility-based programs that still do our program and all the individualization and all the choice, but they do it in a building and they offer a daycare component just like a traditional school would as part of it.

We actually have a lot of flexibility in those in that somebody can come… As long as you are there at least two hours, you can sign up for those programs, so we do have some that come for four hours a day. We have others that come nine hours a day, the entire time the building is open. Most kids come seven hours or more, so most of those are in the building full-time, if you will, and they’ve been really great. They’ve steadily grown. We’ve learned a lot because when you have kids in a building, there’s a variety of different issues you have to deal with, but they have been a success.

We only do those in Oklahoma and Tulsa County. For a while, there was a rule in our state that prohibited us from doing them statewide, but that rule has since gone away, so we actually could do them across the state, but we tried to start because there is a facility process, so we’ve tried to start doing that in the more densely populated areas, but we have four different blended learning centers, one in Tulsa and three in Oklahoma City and those provide essentially a program where even working families that do not have a parent at home can still access the Epic model if they choose to do so.

Mike McShane: And am I right to say, so families are free, let’s say they just want to send their kids there two days a week, that they’re free to do that or half-days or they have a lot of flexibility in how much they want to utilize those learning spaces, am I right in thinking that’s correct?

Ben Harris: That’s correct. That’s correct. As long as they get their work done, we don’t mind if they do it at home or in the building and that’s really how we are with all of our model. I mean, you can get all your work done remotely and when we have the face-to-face meetings, that’s really for the benefit of the family to say, “Look, if we’re struggling to get something figured out on the computer, it’s OK, because we’re going to come together face to face and be able to have consistent periodic meetings, and we’ll cover those challenges when we have those meetings,” and it’s really a big deal and I think it’s set our school apart from really every other virtual school in the states we operate.

Mike McShane: Yeah, I’m really glad you brought that up because I think virtual schooling, “online charter schools,” kind of have a bad rap, and so I’d be interested in what have you learned from other schools experiences, from maybe missteps that they’ve made that you all are trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen to y’all?

Ben Harris: Well, I actually, 20 years ago I started a company that was an online education provider and we only offered services for grades six through 12 and our business was, we provided turnkey, fully instructed online courses, and they were entirely virtual, and I think that experience, although it was a great experience and we did a lot of good work, it really taught me that there were some gaps, both from a service level standpoint and education quality standpoint, and also just a cultural and human connection standpoint. We felt like there were gaps in the Epic experience when we learned what we learned from our first experience. We felt like there were some gaps in that model and we really tried to fill those gaps with Epic.

When you create flexibility, we don’t make our families meet every other day. I mean, we give the family a lot of flexibility and discretion and say, “Look, we can meet as much as weekly or as little as every three weeks,” and then we try to set a schedule that works for the family, and really, if our families are doing well, they don’t even have to do a face-to-face meeting, but very, very few families choose to forgo face-to-face meetings, and typically when they do, it’s because the kid has a medical situation or they can’t be around because of allergies or germs or something like that, so it works out well.

What we found is every family and every kid is different and kids within families are very different, so really, in our heart, we’re labeled a virtual school, but what we strive to be every day is a customizer of education. We really work on how good are we at individualizing and then executing on that individualized plan and we feel like that’s always going to achieve the optimal result. For a kid, we see the computer and technology as one tool, we see buildings and meeting places as another set of tools to ultimately provide an individualized experience.

Mike McShane: You talked about that human connection, so obviously, probably the single most important person in that is the teacher, so I’d love to know, where do you find your teachers? What sort of professional development do you have to do for them so that they can thrive in this environment?

Ben Harris: Great question. Epic teachers, just to describe it, we pay our teachers. Well, we pay about 35 to 40 percent above our state average total teacher compensation. We do that with performance pay. Our teachers get a base pay and a performance pay and it’s about 50/50, so there’s a very substantial amount of their pay that’s driven by performance, so our pay package helps us attract teachers. We post for teachers in the same places other public schools post. We have an extremely rigorous hiring process that includes a case interview, which is kind of unusual, and frankly, it probably scares a lot of applicants off, but it does, I think, is a good way to really figure out if someone can be a good fit for our model.

But our teachers, I think, although they have more flexibility in their day, that’s a big, attractive component to our workplace, they also probably work more hours, work a little harder because that flexibility doesn’t mean less work, it just means you get to choose your time. We hire them on 12-month contracts and we actually require our teachers over the summer that if they have kids on their student roster that are below grade level, they have to continue working with those kids over the summer. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be working full-time 12 months a year. Typically, they work the less in the summer, but almost all of our teachers do work over the summer for that reason, so.

Mike McShane: I’d be fascinated. We mentioned blended learning centers. We mentioned personalized learning funds. We mentioned now paying teachers 35 to 40 percent above average. I hear the question in listeners’ minds, which is, “How does this all work out? How does the money work in all of this? How are you able to afford to do all of these really interesting and innovative things?” When I think, generally speaking, Oklahoma is thought of as a state that spends a lot less per pupil than others and where we have schools that provide more traditional arrangements talking about how difficult it is to make budgets work. So, how does all the accounting work out for this?

Ben Harris: Well, and what I’m about to tell you will probably make this even more confounding, I guess, because in Oklahoma, which is a low-per-pupil spending state, there’s 512 schools in Oklahoma, we are typically in the bottom four with regard to per-pupil expenditures, and in most years, we’re at the very bottom and we spend about $5,200 per kid. When you say, “How do you do it,” there’s two ways we do teacher pay. One, we prioritize it and we basically see that as a separating advantage and we always say, “We want our teachers to be the best paid in our market,” and that’s where we start in our budgeting and we fund that first and then whatever’s left over, we then make that work for the remaining functions of the school.

I think we are very efficient with our resources. That helps. We leverage technology a tremendous amount. For instance, we processed this last year about 40,000 enrollment applications and we did that with a staff of, I think, four, and we do that with our technology. We have an online enrollment system that people can enroll in our school in about eight to 10 minutes and so I think it’s a combination of leveraging technology, making budget priorities to where we’re investing the bulk of our expenditures in instruction, and also just we’ve grown rapidly, so from an economies of scale standpoint, we’ve gotten to be in a pretty good place.

Mike McShane: Now, how did you get involved in all of this?

Ben Harris: Well, that’s interesting. I was in online education about 20 years ago and that company sold in 2007 and I stayed on and did some consulting with the company that bought that and what I realized is I just felt like I could execute better than the group I was working for and began to want to do it on my own and then a guy that was my first employee at the company I started 20 years ago, he called me and said, “Boy, I’m bored of what I’m doing and I’m also… Tell me about what you’re doing on charter schools because I’m frustrated because my kid is going to a public school that I’m not happy with and I really can’t afford to send him anywhere else,” and I said, “Well, gosh, I’m really tired of getting on an airplane, so why don’t we do a school and develop the charter school in our own state instead of in other places?”

We began to work on it in 2009 and we had our planning done by the spring of 2010 and then we had to go to court to get our school opened, which delayed our opening for a year, and we won our litigation and we were able to open the school in the fall of 2011, and it’s just really been an amazing experience ever since. We were hoping when we open the school that we’d have 500 kids that would find value in the school because we weren’t sure we could make it work if we didn’t and our first year, we had about 1,700 students and it’s just grown extremely rapidly every year since.

Mike McShane: Now, how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Ben Harris: Well, we do quarterly benchmarks with our students. The benchmarking tool we’ve used historically is NWEA Map and so we do an internal benchmark process and then we’re required to participate in all state standardized testing as well, so our state has a report card.

To be honest with you, our report cards have been typically mediocre to below average. A big reason for that is our graduation rates is an area we struggle in and the primary reason why we struggle is the measurement for those in almost all states, because this is how the federal government measures it, is a four-year graduation cohort and a significant part of our population is fifth-year seniors, so right when they come into our model, we may help them graduate and get across the finish line, but they actually count negatively on our grad rate, which ultimately hurts our report card, but we have the same accountability standards that any other Oklahoma public school has. That’s just the way the charter laws are set up.

Where we are focused primarily is we try to produce learning gains based on our math benchmarks. Typically, about 80 percent of our students are able to generate a learning gain based on where they start and where they finish in the school year and we really focus on that because we feel like that’s a fair apples-to-apples comparison because no matter where a kid is starting with you, the time that they’re with you, you should be able to produce a learning gain, so we really try to rally around that. We really try to structure our bonuses and compensation systems around that as well.

Mike McShane: If you were to look back on your experience here, some lessons that you’ve learned, I would love to know. You come from a previous experience in this, but throughout the 10 years now plus you’ve been working on this project, if people are listening to this podcast and they think in their own state, “Wow, we should really do something like this. This sounds cool,” what are some lessons that you’ve learned or what’s some advice you’d give them?

Ben Harris: Well, the lessons I’ve learned is sadly the hardest part of what we do is the politics around it. When you succeed and you grow and you capture market share in K-12 education, there will be a political reaction and I think getting in the door is very challenging. Getting a charter, I don’t know of anywhere where anybody would tell me it’s “easy to get a charter school.” I think it’s typically very difficult to get a charter school, so there are barriers to entry that are largely political and also capital barriers to entry. I mean, there’s not a lot of financing alternatives for startup charter schools.

What I would say is don’t just go into thinking, “Hey, all I need to know is how to be an educator and how to run a great school.” You really need to know how to run a small business. Most charter schools go down because of financial challenges. Typically, it’s financially in the sense that they can meet their obligations. Sometimes, it’s financial in the sense that they have a tough time complying with the financial requirements of states, so you have to have a financial acumen, you have to have a political acumen, and then you have to have the educational quality components as well, so it’s challenging and if you think that you’ll go in and do a great job and then everybody’s going to run up and pin a medal on your chest for it, that’s not the way it goes. A lot of times you see value you’re delivering for families, but a lot of times in the media and the political world, you don’t feel very appreciated and sometimes, you feel quite the opposite.

Mike McShane: And does that just wear on you? I mean, it seems to me that it’s just… I used to be a ninth and 10th grade teacher and that’s hard enough and I was thinking of the principals that I served under and they had a tough enough job, anyway, but then to be getting all of this external vitriol and attacks, do you think that that’s keeping people from starting great charter schools, like that they just say, “I don’t want the headache”?

Ben Harris: I think it’s a huge barrier to the innovation. Our country is really… Every industry has evolved because of innovation and a new way of looking at things and creative disruption and all the elements that make America special and there’s some real barriers to letting those forces work in K-12 education and it’s a shame. I think a lot of the challenges in K-12 education are because the adults can’t get out of their way, so if we could evolve to where this is more about when you’re having success, I’m going to try to copy what you do, and imitation is a large form of flattery. The biggest insult you have is when you have a Raising Cane’s Chicken and a Chick-fil-A across the street.

I mean, if we had that model in K-12 education, I think that you would see a lot of our problems get solved and a lot of our outcomes improve, but I think what happens a lot of times is when there’s an organization that has a level of success, there’s an alternative attack machine that gins up and gets generated and says, “This is really not a real success because of this, this, and this,” and the group that’s getting attacked has to spend a lot of resources and mental energy defending itself as opposed to continuing to pour into quality and innovation, so if we could compete happily ever after, I think that that would produce a lot better result, and I think we’re getting there, but it’s extremely slow.

Mike McShane: Sure, and the point is always made. As my understanding, no one is forced to attend your schools. People only attend your schools because they choose to, because they think that that option is, for whatever reason, is superior to their other options available to them.

Ben Harris: Yeah, and I think in education, even in states with a more advanced policy outlook, we have largely tried to control educational quality and efficiency with command-and-control regulation that’s typically one-size-fits-all and that’s extremely difficult to do without a lot of unintended consequences, and typically those unintended consequences have a very high-leaning effect on innovation and so that’s what I think we have to look more at: How can we drive quality and efficiency through competition as opposed to command-and-control regulation? Because to me, a lot of those regulations don’t add a lot of value, particularly when you’ve got the ultimate regulator of, “If I don’t do a good job, people won’t walk in my door,” and that’s how we, in most instances, the biggest regulator we have is competition, it’s not government intervention, and that’s where we need to get to in common education as well.

Mike McShane: I can’t think of a better place to leave it than there. Ben Harris from Epic Charter Schools, thanks so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Ben Harris: Thank you.

Mike McShane: I hope you all enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I think Ben is a real thoughtful guy looking through all of the issues related to both online learning and operating a charter school and the environment that they’re working in. Look, there’s no doubt Epic has been controversial. There have been lots of folks who have taken great issue with Epic and we didn’t necessarily spend a ton of time dwelling on that because I don’t think that’s necessarily the interesting part of the story, but if you’re interested in figuring that out, you can.

I think that whole idea around like the learning fund is fascinating. I mean, some of the reservations that I have around things like online learning is that students might not have the opportunity to participate in those types of extracurricular, co-curricular activities, however you want to think of them, so that really innovative way of thinking about, “Well, why don’t we create a pot of funding that the school can manage to do that?” I think it’s just a really interesting solution to that problem.

Obviously, the things that are doing to try and attract great teachers, both on the pay side, which I imagine there were teachers listening to this that their ears perked up at that point, but also just in the types of environment to work in sounds really appealing to me, and then obviously, this work around learning centers. Again, there’s lots of children for which full-time online education is not necessarily a great option, so creating these types of centers where children can come in and actually get the type of social support that they need, get the in-person support that they need while still getting the best of the curriculum they choose and the personalized learning that goes along with that, I think it’s this really interesting, happy medium, this really interesting blending of these different models that I think has a lot of promise. It’ll be interesting to see. As with most of these cool schools, I’m always interested to follow up with them a year or two after we talked, so who knows what the future holds?

But I hope that was a fruitful conversation for everyone to just think about how Ben and even I was with him as we’re thinking through these problems and trying to create the best environment that we have for kids to learn and kids with diverse backgrounds and diverse learning needs that they have, how can we put them in the best environment to learn?

As always, I ask that you subscribe to this podcast. Again, when you subscribe, you don’t just get Cool Schools, though obviously, that is something of which I am passionate. You can hear all of the other interesting podcast content that we’re regularly putting out. Also, if you’d like to give us a rating, that would be outstanding. Go ahead and hop on at iTunes or whatever. I would prefer if you gave us a five-star rating, but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you didn’t think I gave you a five-star effort. Please, feel free to let me know. I will do better next time, I promise.

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My final request is the one that I always leave every one of these podcasts with: If you know of a cool school, if your children attend one or your friend’s children attend one or there’s one down the street from your house, please don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know. I find out about these via word of mouth, so shoot me a tweet @MQ_McShane. Send me an email, stop me in the street. I will most likely be wearing a mask when I’m in public, but I have a distinctive walk, I’ve been told, so you may be able to spot me. Anyway, thanks so much for joining us on another episode of the Cool Schools podcast. I look forward to talking to you again.