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More Oklahoma Families Turning To 'Virtual' Schools

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With each new school year, more Oklahoma families are choosing to take their children out of a traditional classroom and "logging in" to virtual learning. Kassandra, Christian and Clayton Williams used to attend a brick-and-mortar school, but now their family is choosing blended virtual learning through EPIC Charter.

"In the middle of my 7th grade year, whenever I was in still in public school, we pulled out almost immediately due to heavy bullying," said Clayton Williams, a student at EPIC Charter.

Now their mother, Trish Kaler, supervises them as they all take online courses. Their teacher, Ms. Lake, is just a phone call or text away.

When it comes to teacher salaries, EPIC pays their teachers $35,000 a year, with the potential for $10,000 in performance bonuses, and that's just for the first year. It's called merit pay.

"Currently we have over 5,000 Oklahoma certified teachers that have applied," said Bart Banfield, Asst. Superintendent of Instruction at EPIC Charter Schools.

Union Public Schools Superintendent Doctor Kirt Hartzler believes a reason virtual charters can pay teachers more is that they don't have to spend their state aid on high operating costs.

"We're responsible for transporting students, we're responsible for feeding them, we're responsible for providing the adequate supervision and the security that's needed," Dr. Hartzler. "We have buildings that we have to heat and cool."

Studies show many families choose virtual charter schools for many reasons but the number one motivation is bullying. The study, commissioned by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, cited overcrowding, limited resources and problems with staff as other top reasons for switching. Since 2014, state statistics show enrollment has more than doubled. EPIC believes they'll top 40,000 students within five years. Union Public Schools has its own virtual academy. District leaders say it's clear; virtual is not just a trend.

"It's not going to go away," said Dr. Hartzler. "If you think about our students they're the digital natives."

"I feel super successful only because my kids are now successful," said Kaler.

And so do her kids.

"I was able to find a new social group and a new group of people that accepted me for me," said Williams.

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