Mavericks charter schools don't live up to big promises

Before the songs, chanting, and heartfelt tears, the ceremony next door to a strip mall begins with speeches. A thin, deeply tanned man in a pinstriped suit is among the first to take the microphone. He's not famous — not exactly — but his receding hairline, rectangular face, and overeager grin are naggingly familiar. "This is a hope factory," he begins. "This is a spiritual experience."

He stands in the lobby of what could be any office building in Florida, beside a reception desk festooned with red, white, and blue balloons.

"I stuttered very badly as a kid," he continues, his voice warming to the rhythm of a much-repeated tale. "I was considered a dummy. I empathize with these kids in a very intimate way."

Former CEO Mark Thimmig is in a legal battle with Mavericks' other founders.
PRNewsFoto/Mavericks in Education/Newscom
Former CEO Mark Thimmig is in a legal battle with Mavericks' other founders.
Developer Mark Rodberg wanted Dwyane Wade's name on his restaurants and schools.
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Developer Mark Rodberg wanted Dwyane Wade's name on his restaurants and schools.

This is Frank Biden, the brother of Vice President Joe Biden. He's at a ribbon-cutting event August 31 to promote the first Palm Beach County location of Mavericks in Education Florida, a for-profit charter school chain that's already colonized Miami-Dade.

"You are all believers," Biden exhorts the crowd. "This thing spreads like wildfire."

In the past two years, eight Mavericks high schools have opened in Florida, including two in Miami-Dade, two in Broward, and one in Palm Beach. In 2011, Mavericks claimed to enroll more than 3,700 students.

The schools, all publicly funded and tuition-free, aim to succeed where many public schools fail. They promise to help young people who would otherwise drop out earn enough credits to graduate.

School districts are eager for the help. Only two-thirds of Florida students graduate — a rate that puts the state 44th in the nation, according to Education Week. The statistics are even worse for African-Americans and Hispanics, who make up a majority of Mavericks students in South Florida. Mavericks opens schools in poor neighborhoods, welcoming students of all stripes, including those with jobs and children of their own. By taking online classes a few hours a day, they can earn a diploma.

But so far, Mavericks' lofty goals haven't materialized. Most of their schools graduate less than 15 percent of eligible students. On state report cards, the schools get "incompletes" because so few of their students take the FCAT. In Homestead, meanwhile, two former teachers filed whistleblower lawsuits alleging the school there is inflating attendance records and failing to report grades properly.

Plus there are rampant financial questions, cozy ties between Mavericks and local politicians, and a legal fight with former celebrity spokesman Dwyane Wade.

Mavericks has become a poster child for the problems that have long dogged charter schools in Florida. How can they help troubled kids while also turning a profit, especially when they are run by a man whose brother is next in line for the White House?

"Join us in our mission," Biden says. "If you don't feel a little bit of this energy today, then there's something wrong with you!"

Mavericks' story begins in Akron, Ohio, with a wealthy industrialist who loved to wear big cowboy hats and donate millions of dollars to Republican politicians. In 1998, David Brennan launched White Hat Management. His charter schools were housed in strip malls, and the students herded in to sit at computers for three shifts a day. This was an education model Mavericks would later call the "next generation in education." But state auditors weren't so fond of the company.

For years, the firm refused to reveal how millions of tax dollars were divided between expenses such as teacher salaries and computers, and profits for White Hat. Meanwhile, many of the schools were given failing grades of "academic watch" or "academic emergency" by the Ohio Department of Education.

Last year, the boards of schools in Cleveland and Akron sued White Hat to terminate their contracts, alleging the schools were run without local input and money wasn't reaching the classrooms. This August, an Ohio judge ordered White Hat to open its books for discovery in the suit, but the information has not yet been published.

One of White Hat's early leaders was Mark Thimmig. As CEO from 2001 to 2005, he helped grow the company into one of the largest charter school chains in the nation. As of 2010, White Hat had 51 charter schools in six states, including ten charter schools in Florida called Life Skills Centers.

Two years after leaving White Hat, Thimmig was approached by Palm Beach Gardens developer Mark Rodberg about launching a chain of charter schools here, according to court filings. Rodberg had built a few schools for White Hat but had never run one before. He owned restaurants, including Bucky's Grill in Fort Lauderdale. Together, Thimmig and Rodberg came up with a plan that was nearly identical to White Hat's: Students would attend school but take all of their courses online, using virtual technology that required minimal maintenance. Classrooms could hold rows of cubicles with computers where kids would sit elbow-to-elbow. There would be no after-school sports teams, just "cyber-athletics" with students to playing Wii instead of shooting hoops.

In its promotional packets, Mavericks hands out a news story citing a 2010 study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which found that only 27 percent of Miami-Dade's black male students graduated in 2008. By targeting at-risk kids, Mavericks would try to alleviate this achievement gap.

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5 comments
arlyg
arlyg

Mavericks is a messed up system. However, also look at the students as well. The comment below mentions free and reduced lunch forms. Those forms are not just for free lunch, son! They get you free waivers to take the SAT or ACT as well, as provide materials for the school to help aid in YOUR learning process. The vending machines are not stocked with JUNK food, they are now SMART machines that offer no soda or candy/chips. Also, kids REFUSE to come to direct instruction! And also instead of working on their APEX curriculum after refusing to come to that "one-on-one" instruction you speak of, they are sitting there for 4 hours on YOUTUBE, watching kids fight or looking up drug sites. And I'm sure you ask, "Where are the teachers?" We are there, constantly walking around the room, b/c of this issue BABYSITTING and REDIRECTING, instead of being able to TEACH. So your comment below, all I have to say , is think before you speak. Your generation of kids, has a sense of entitlement. There is no respect for authority, your selves, or elders. It truly is a shame. There are many other flaws in the system as well with the staff. It is so unprofessional. You have grown-ups acting like kids. Running around, going to higher ups distorting information, just to make themselves look better. You also have staff, that are less experienced, have less education than other staff members making more money, and becoming department chairs. You have teachers who do nothing all day, being glorified by the acting principal, while the teachers who bust their butts for those kids are getting reprimanded everytime they blink, get no recognition at all let alone a "thank you." This company needs a total re-vamp of its structure. But the students need to step up too. Do not be so quick to blame or point fingers, because I have seen kids complete nothing or achieve no credits in a full year. But yet, we are there everyday, making pennies, trying to encourage and redirect, but the student makes the choice to not listen, and PLAY! We are educators, not babysitters. Mavericks is FLAWED!

Tomthethundercloud
Tomthethundercloud

I go to mavericks high school in st.Petersburg Florida and it is pathetic and almost sad. Sad because the system mavericks offers is truly good and has potential but everything else is simply horrible. For 1 they won't let you enroll until you have filled out the free or reduced lunch forms(which give then more money to waste) 2 after you've filled out those free or reduced lunch forms the only form of nutrition provided(which isnt free) are two vending machines that are often more than half empty with items such cheetos or candy that offer no nutritional value. 3 once you finishing a class it takes somewhere between 3 days and 2 weeks to get assigned another one. 4 there is almost never the one on one instruction promised to you on that misleading day where they first pull you in with their endless fallacies. I could name many more topics of discussion which would drag mavericks through the dirt but the fact of the matter is this place needs to end or be seriously refurbished, being a student there I personally feel as though I'm nothing more than a meal ticket to a wealthy man ill never have a human interaction with.

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Petulant
Petulant

Charter Scams are destroying Public EducationReligious zealots, crooked politicians and deep pocket big wigs continue their FOR PROFIT drive to privatize. How sad, "there a sucker born every minute" The 99 % will be destined for poverty because of the greed, corruption and stupidity

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