Former Lone Grove High School student Kolton Ellis received his high school diploma in the spring of 2020, with more academic credits than required for graduation by Oklahoma state law. Yet he and his family didn’t feel that he was actually ready to graduate.
Ellis’ mother, Bobbie Ellis, said her son struggled with learning difficulties throughout school. After failing some courses, he enrolled in the district’s online credit recovery program, Longhorn Academy, at the advice of the school counselor for his senior year in 2019-2020.
According to state statute, a school year must consist of 1,080 hours of instructional time. However, Ellis claims he earned the necessary credits for English II, math, biology and world history after completing less than five hours of online instruction through Longhorn Academy. When Ellis inquired about enrolling for a fifth year of high school in order to gain mastery of the subjects he felt he hadn’t received adequate instruction in, he was denied by his district, Lone Grove Public Schools, because he had already received the credit for the courses.
“I want to improve my grades and improve my ACT score to get into a good college so I can get an education,” Ellis said. “They always claim it’s preparing us for the future, but what about whenever we don’t feel prepared? They’re just pushing us out here.”
On Dec. 1, 2020, Ellis submitted a filing (embedded at the bottom of this article) with the Carter County District Court, requesting the court enter an order restraining the school district, located just west of Ardmore, from obstructing his efforts to re-enroll for a fifth year of high school.
Ellis also requested that the court declare he is not a lawful graduate of Lone Grove Schools, that he is entitled to enroll as a fifth-year senior and that Lone Grove Schools does not possess the legal authority to “fraudulently confer academic credit to students using programs that are not fostering mastery of state mandated academic standards put in place by the State Department of Education.”
“Kolton actually didn’t meet the standards that are plainly posted on the State Board of Education’s website,” Bobbie Ellis said. “Instead, we were told there are no standards nor have there ever been any standards in the state of Oklahoma. Kolton, to our dismay, went through a whole year of math in 43.5 minutes. Kolton wasn’t a senior when school started — he had 18.5 credits. By March, Kolton had 27.5 credits. No way possible. The district acts like they’re blind to this.”
A motion of opposition requesting the court dismiss the case was filed by Lone Grove Schools on Dec. 20. The motion claims Ellis’ diploma was awarded in accordance with state law, State Board of Education and State Department of Education regulations and district board policies.
The motion states that Ellis was requesting to be re-enrolled as a full-time student with access to both instruction and extra-curricular activities. It also states that once a student receives the necessary credits and graduates, they no longer have a right to attend an Oklahoma public school.
Lone Grove’s motion continues, “Kolton asserts that the status quo is one where all students [are given] the opportunity to learn and successfully master state-mandated core courses in order to obtain a standard high school diploma. However, successful mastery of state mandated core courses is not currently, and has never been, the graduation standard for students in Oklahoma public schools.”
“I’m just trying to go back and better myself and most of the time it’s the other way around, where students want to get pushed through,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to go back and fool proof myself for a college plan and they won’t let me come back.”
The case was dismissed without prejudice, at the request of Ellis, on March 1, but Bobbie Ellis said they are likely to head back to court.
“We have dismissed that one without prejudice because it’s too late for him to go back to school, but we will more than likely pursue a tort claim,” Bobbie Ellis told NonDoc through email.
‘It’s quite uncommon for this particular situation to come up’
In email correspondence between Bobbie Ellis and State Department of Education Assistant General Council Lori Murphy obtained by NonDoc, Murphy states that Oklahoma law does not allow the enrollment of a student who has already completed graduation requirements.
“It’s under a school district’s authority in Oklahoma to determine whether a student meets the graduation requirements set by the state and the district, so there is no role that OSDE would be able to play in that,” Murphy wrote. “I would point out that if a district has already classified someone as a graduate/permitted them to graduate, that decision can’t be rescinded (this is to protect students).”
General counsel with the State Department of Education Brad Clark told NonDoc that, according to state statute, the State Board of Education sets out standards for the amount of instruction students must achieve in each subject in order to complete that unit.
“If that is achieved and attained, the student would be determined at a local level to meet the graduation requirements for the state,” Clark said.
SDE guidelines require 23 sets of competencies in order to meet the state’s graduation requirements. This includes four units of English, three units of math, three units of science, three units of history and citizenship skills, one unit of arts, one unit of computer technology or foreign language and eight units of electives.
“It sounds like in this case it’s a local determination,” Clark said. “Each local board of education, through the administration of curriculum measurements, determines whether each student has met those requirements for the competencies in those subject-matter areas in standards that the State Board has adopted. It really is a local determination at that level when we’re talking about whether a student attains those specific levels to be awarded a credit.”
Clark said a situation like the one Ellis has raised is uncommon and that local districts often have supplemental programs in place for high school graduates who need extra support.
“It’s quite uncommon for this particular situation to come up. I know that we have spoken with the parent, not recently, but throughout the spring. The case seemed to involve extra-curricular activities, so that may be part of the parent and child’s desire as well.” Clark said. “There are different opportunities. Most of them are going to be locally selected and adopted as far as additional resources that are made available, whether that be supplemental curriculum and remediation-type opportunities that are available. These are really going to be locally selected and adopted, but they certainly are available to benefit any and all children.”
Lone Grove Public Schools’ response
Lone Grove Schools Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller provided a statement to NonDoc in February regarding the Ellis case.
“Federal privacy laws restrict the district from sharing student information regarding Kolton Ellis,” the statement read. “With that being said, Kolton’s graduation from Lone Grove School District was proper. The district believes that the appropriate venue in which to defend against Kolton’s claims are in court.”
Ellis’ situation and lawsuit was first reported by Ray Carter of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.