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Second ‘Surprise’ Head Count of Schools Shows Progress; Improvements Still Needed
Auditor of State Dave Yost speaks during a press conference on May 23 about the results of a second statewide student attendance count. The count included a total of 54 traditional and charter schools.
Columbus – A second unannounced statewide head count of community school attendance found that attendance among non-Dropout Recovery and Prevention schools has improved, according to a report released today by Ohio Auditor Dave Yost.
Of the 30 non-DORP community schools counted by Auditor of State staff on Nov. 9, 2015, all but one had attendance rates greater than 73 percent. And at Westside Academy, a start-up community school in Franklin County, the attendance rate was 99.85 percent on the day the student count was taken.
“It’s an extremely positive sign that we are seeing more students in the classrooms of our charter schools,” Yost said. “What continues to be concerning is there are too many empty chairs that taxpayers are paying to have occupied, particularly at our high-risk Dropout Recovery and Prevention schools.”
During the first unannounced head count review in 2014, auditors found attendance at 23 percent of community schools (7 of 30) was severely below what was on file with ODE, while it was 7 percent (3 of 44) during the second head count.
Auditors found that attendance rates for 14 DORP community schools they visited in November were at or below 50 percent, compared to a high of 66 percent a year ago when seven DORP community schools were reviewed.
This year, AOS staff also examined head counts at 10 traditional schools, and found attendance averaged about 91 percent on the day of the count.
Auditors found that three community schools were operating improperly as non-classroom based correspondence or E-schools despite being chartered as site-based schools. Those three schools – Urbana Community School (Champaign County), London Academy (Madison County), and Utica Shale Academy of Ohio (Columbiana County) – were referred to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) for further investigation.
“This review makes it clear that we need to continue to strengthen our system of accountability,” Auditor Yost said. “We look forward to working with the General Assembly and Ohio Department of Education to implement necessary reforms so Ohioans can have greater confidence in these important options for educating our children.”
Yost said the results of the AOS community school student attendance counts performed the past two years illustrate how attendance among community schools can vary vastly depending upon the community school’s educational delivery model and other factors. Taken together with research conducted by Ohio State University, Yost said the General Assembly and other education stakeholders should review the state’s school funding system.
The review was conducted as a follow-up to a study in 2014 to measure whether progress was being made in community school attendance. The 2014 student head count review came in response to reports of irregular attendance and enrollment practices within several Ohio community schools. For the initial attendance count, AOS staff performed an unannounced or “surprise” student head count at 30 of Ohio’s site-based community schools on Oct. 1, 2014.
The latest unannounced count occurred on Nov. 9, 2015 and involved 44 site-based community schools. Among them were six schools that ranked among the lowest in the 2014 review (a seventh was not included in the 2015 review because it had suspended operations). This year’s review also included 10 traditional schools located near the community schools selected for the surprise head count.
AOS staff also obtained official attendance documents for all the schools reviewed within roughly 24 hours of completing the count to verify the accuracy of the record keeping.
As it did in its first surprise head count report, the AOS found the DORP schools continue to be challenged and had the highest non-attendance during the community school student head count. The DORP schools attendance ranged from zero to 50.2 percent attendance.
With one exception, the non-DORP community schools attendance rates ranged from about 73 percent to 99.9 percent. One community school’s attendance was 29.3 percent. The traditional school attendance in similar geographic areas ranged from 75.2 percent to 99.9 percent.
Out of the 44 community schools reviewed, three were identified as having unusually high variances in students counted by AOS staff versus the number of students those schools reported to ODE.
The difference between what the AOS review found and what was reflected in ODE’s FTE numbers was slightly higher for the community schools than the traditional schools. The difference between what was witnessed by members of the auditor’s staff versus what the education department reported as funding in the community schools (not including DORP schools) was 13.7 percent, while the traditional schools were off by 9 percent.
In traditional schools, the variance between what was observed by AOS staff and ODE’s numbers ranged from nearly 25 percent to less than one percent. Of the 10 traditional schools observed for head count purposes, four had a variance greater than 10 percent.
In DORP schools, the variance between what was observed versus claimed ranged between 50 to 100 percent, with nine DORP schools having a variance of 60 percent or greater.
The report makes eight recommendations to the ODE and Ohio General Assembly for improvements to reporting requirements and other measures aimed at safeguarding public dollars, some of which were also part of the January 2015 report.
In addition, the report recommends the General Assembly consider separating the Education Management Information System (EMIS) function from ODE and creating either a separate state agency dedicated to the design and maintenance of EMIS or assigning those duties to another department, such as the Ohio Department of Higher Education, which has programming expertise to manage the complex system.
“ODE’s lack of adequate, committed resources has caused significant delays and hurdles in the rollout of the EMIS redesign project, a process that began eight years ago and is still not fully operational,” the report said. “Without a long-range plan and an investment in Ohio’s EMIS resources, ODE cannot effectively identify or prevent future EMIS data processing issues that may potentially lead to material miscalculation of state Foundation funding or misreporting of Federal report card information.”
Among other recommendations, the report also calls for clearer guidance in advising sponsors about how to evaluate a blended learning curriculum; clarity on whether community schools must provide a minimum amount of classroom instruction; and clear language on whether the instruction must come from certified teachers or tutors.
“Charter schools play an important role in Ohio’s education system,” Auditor Yost said, “and we need to improve the accountability and transparency within those schools so we can have complete confidence that our children are getting the education they deserve.”
The full audit can be found online.
The Auditor of State’s office, one of five independently elected statewide offices in Ohio, is responsible for auditing more than 5,800 state and local government agencies. Under the direction of Auditor Dave Yost, the office also provides financial services to local governments, investigates and prevents fraud in public agencies and promotes transparency in government.
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