Before the songs, chanting, and heartfelt tears, the ceremony next door to a Palm Springs strip mall begins with speeches. A thin, deeply tanned man in a pin-striped suit is among the first to take the microphone. He's not famous — not exactly — but his receding hairline, rectangular face, and over-eager 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. A sea of dignitaries surrounds him — a city commissioner from nearby Lake Worth, the mayor of Palm Springs, school board members, a pastor, teenagers wearing name tags that say "ambassador."
"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."
This is Frank Biden, the brother of Vice President Joe Biden. He's here, at a ribbon-cutting event August 31, to promote the first Palm Beach County location of a local for-profit chain of charter schools called Mavericks in Education Florida.
"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 Broward, one in Palm Beach, and two in Miami-Dade counties. 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 kids who would otherwise drop out earn enough credits to graduate.
School districts are eager for the help. Just 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 Latinos, 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 are taking the FCAT. In Miami, two former teachers filed whistle-blower lawsuits alleging the Homestead school 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 for-profit company 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 country. 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 alleges in court documents, he was approached by Palm Beach Gardens developer Mark Rodberg about launching a chain of charter schools here. Rodberg had built a few schools for White Hat, but had never run one before. He owned restaurants, including Bucky's Bar-B-Que in Boca Raton and 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 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" that allowed kids to play Wii instead of shooting hoops.