Suddenly, six groomed businessmen, cologned with importance, stroll in behind an absolute giant of a man, clad today in grandpa sweater and signature 10-gallon white cowboy hat.
The giant approaches tiny me. I already know who he is: Mister David Brennan. I don't know whether to sit or stand. I stand.
"Amy, nice to meet you," booms the giant. "I was hoping you could tell my colleagues and I why you enjoy being an adviser here." He gestures to the businessmen standing at the threshold of my canvas-and-metal cage.
I lean back, grasping the desk, hoping to mask my fear of saying something stupid or, worse, not being able to come up with anything to tell this important-smelling man, who holds my job in his extremely large hands.
The businessmen, having now been formally introduced as the Board of Education of Mr. Brennan's own White Hat Management, gaze at me with tight, polite smiles, folded hands, and expectation so forced that I gun instantly for what I know they want: The Canned Answer.
"I love working here because I think there's no better feeling than helping kids succeed at education."
The important men coo. Mr. Brennan is pleased. Here I am, smack in the presence of Mister Billionaire, who owns half the city of Akron and the charter school I work for, and I beam like it's my job.
As the men resume their tour of the cubicled "school," I overhear Mr. Brennan turning to one of the suited men, saying with conviction, "Internet-based schooling is the education of the future. As long as a child has a computer, he can learn wherever and at any time of the day. I believe this is the future of public education today."
The men coo again. I can still smell their aftershave as they stroll on, the big man with the big hat towering over them.
Employees welcomed the excitement interrupting another mundane workday when we were informed via e-mail that "Mr. Brennan is coming -- clean up your cube!" Sure enough, he'd come with a suited entourage of investors, business partners, and local officials to display his creation and talk to the animals chained to headsets in walled cubes, gazing into identical blue screens.
In many ways, we were like the rest of corporate America. But this wasn't supposed to be corporate America. This was meant to be the Forefront of Education, where technology meets classroom. This was White Hat Management.
The privately owned company was founded in 1998 by industrialist and self-proclaimed "education activist" David Brennan. And as his publicly funded, privately operated chain of charter schools erupt like a bad rash across Ohio and the rest of the country, one could say it's Mr. Brennan's way of turning education into big business.
White Hat is the largest charter school operator in Ohio, with over 16,000 students and 34 schools, including Hope Academies and Life Skills Centers. "If Brennan's White Hat charter-school chain was a recognized school system, it would be Ohio's ninth largest based on enrollment," a 2005 press release boasts.
Like McDonald's, White Hat serves as many kids as possible as cheaply as possible. But what many don't know is how White Hat is making millions and funneling scarce education money to profit a private empire.
Before White Hat took me on board, I was substitute teaching at Kent City Schools, but an impending funding crunch would soon force cutbacks. All full-time temporary teachers were required to have teaching certificates. Since I didn't have one, I applied at a local temp agency. That's how I landed the job at the Ohio Distance & Electronic Learning Academy, Brennan's internet school, where kids are supposed to earn their high-school diplomas online.
With buildings being shut down and teachers being canned in droves across the state, White Hat seemed to be the only place hiring. I was brought on board as an academic adviser. It seemed like a pretty cool gig at the time; I would be helping students graduate, via phone and e-mail, from a cubicle farm in downtown Akron.
On my first day at OHDELA, I was shown to my cube, given a large gray binder, and ordered to copy my own training manual. One week later, promptly at 8 a.m., a huge pile of messy files and the educational fates of 150 students were handed down to me by four overworked and mentally scattered advisers. It was the beginning of the school year. Enrollment was picking up rapidly. The little online high school was approaching an enrollment of 1,500 kids -- with a staff of only 30 to 40 teachers and advisers to steer their education.
We never actually met kids face-to-face. All tests are done online, and homework is e-mailed to teachers, who are housed in the same cubicle farm as advisers.
White Hat sells education as an all-expenses-paid package deal, promising families "individualized home-based educations . . . from the comfort and safety of home." Students are promised a free computer and "teachers who are dedicated to supporting families and students."
But during my first week as an "academic adviser," I almost drowned in a flood of desperate phone calls, e-mails, and voice mails that piled up before I arrived. There were frantic calls from kids and parents who'd just gotten their computer and didn't know where to begin. There were students who'd been enrolled for months, but had made no progress because they didn't know how to log in or find their classes online.
It became clear that we advisers were hired as an afterthought to rescue families stuck in White Hat's cyber black hole. While the teachers waded through hundreds of papers from faceless students, the advisers were the students' lifeline, there to bridge holes and bandage gaps in an organization that was thrown together in a hurry.
Parents rejoiced that there was finally someone to answer their calls, yet were soon dismayed to discover their child was desperately behind. A good percentage had proceeded blindly under the notion that by simply logging in to "Learning Opportunity Hours" -- i.e., attendance hours -- they would be automatically propelled to the next grade. Advisers had the unfortunate task of informing them that they still had an entire list (and a lengthy one) of tests and assignments to complete for each class, as well as another list of classes they must complete before moving on to the next grade.
"Don't worry," we were instructed to tell discouraged families. "At OHDELA, you can work through the summer and you can stay enrolled until you're 21, so you've got plenty of time." After all, the longer they stayed, the more money White Hat received from the state.
My job at Mr. Brennan's gerbil cage was contacting students and parents every two weeks, telemarketer-style, and attempting to hold kids accountable for their progress. More often than not, there was no progress at all for a variety of excuses -- valid and not -- concocted by students who seemed less interested in their educational well-being than I was. Faced with choosing between the importance of their education and the irresistible allure of the Xbox, the odds weren't good.
So every day at 8 a.m., I strapped into my headset and launched into my 30-plus Cheerleader/Bad Guy phone calls, for 11 bucks an hour with zero benefits.
Parents, I often found, were too busy working one or two jobs to be responsible for their child's progress. Accountability for the student fell to me, and all I could do was call, threaten, persuade, and call some more. Occasionally the school offered money to bribe students into finishing their classes. Could you imagine getting 20 bucks from your public-school teacher for finishing Algebra I?
The trouble with online schools is inherent: Teens are expected to be mature enough to school themselves. But with no face-to-face interaction with parents or students, the school has no control, and accountability ultimately falls by the wayside.
Every day I'd receive a call that someone's hard drive crashed or contracted hundreds of viruses, leaving students unable to work until a loaner was sent. As White Hat bureaucracy would have it, that meant a two- to three-week wait. Missing that much time at a normal school would prompt calls to principals and social workers. But at White Hat, it was all too common for students to miss weeks, even months, over technical difficulties alone.
After a few weeks, I had a clearer understanding of why these families came to OHDELA. Their stories had a common thread: They were looking for something better than their local public schools. Kids heard about the online school from other kids and begged their parents to enroll them. Kids naturally found it a cool idea. It meant sleeping in, not having to go to class. To their parents, it meant having their child at home instead of exposed to increasingly dangerous neighborhoods. White Hat sold it as a win-win deal.
We have the internet now! We can go to school without getting out of bed! It's the age of technology!
It also meant a free computer to families who'd never owned one. Unfortunately, many of the students I spoke with didn't even own a desk or chair. They were attempting to complete a high-school education on the floor of their bedroom, while the rest of the family vied for use of the brand new toy.
I left my cubicle every day feeling sorry for families who were lost and confused. Many had enrolled in our school as a last resort, and we left them more discouraged than ever. As I diligently explained buttons and links and log-in hours from the other end of the line, I could sense the students' declining hope of ever receiving a high-school diploma.
White Hat, meanwhile, seemed more preoccupied with charting spreadsheets, calculating endless employee performance measures, appeasing streams of irate mothers, and raking in cold, hard state cash.
Organizationally speaking, it was a nightmare on steroids. The place was built on a lopsided pyramid of spreadsheets, spreadsheets, and more spreadsheets. I was given the daily task of updating huge Excel workbooks with student data and test scores. Copies would circulate throughout the office, so that no two staff members had the same information about one student.
Every morning I arrived to stare eight more hours of drudgery in the face. It was one of those jobs that are traumatic to any creative, intelligent mind. I had to admit to myself that it really was nothing but a poorly run credit factory with killer marketing.
I've never witnessed lower morale at a workplace. Rumors circulated, cliques gossiped, managers took sides, and everyone had a cynical attitude toward the company. Many of the young, inexperienced teachers were hired straight out of college or after long bouts of trying to find "real teaching jobs." They became resigned to their roles as cubicle slaves, with no control over the material they "taught."
I felt dirty, like I'd landed in the middle of an illegal operation. I wanted to say something. But White Hat was paying my rent, just as it was everyone else's. And after nine months of working through the temp agency, the company finally hired me and handed over some benefits.
Though students could pretty much do as they pleased, staff was under strict control. We swiped in and out with special badges so that every move, every bathroom break, was tracked. Time at your computer was logged electronically to ensure you were available to answer the phone not a minute less than eight hours a day. Phone calls and e-mails were meticulously charted. If your performance wasn't up to par, you'd be summoned to the principal's office for a middle-management-style wrist-slap, and your chart soon contained the notation of troublemaker.
Each Tuesday at 9 a.m. sharp, we attended mandatory meetings in which our numbers were run. Our manager prided himself on being a "numbers guy." Our phone calls were graphed individually and in relation to co-workers' numbers, then were printed out, stapled, and handed to us on our way into the meeting. We'd talk about changes and details we had to keep track of. We gazed at fancy graphs, stats, and bell curves. But we didn't talk much about improving the educational experience of our students.
White Hat sells itself as a solution to at-risk kids and staggering dropout rates. But our school seemed almost perfectly designed for those kids to fail.
A large portion of the students arrived from poorer districts and the other side of the digital divide. Many were transferring directly out of Cleveland and Akron city schools, and most lacked basic computer skills. I remember one mother who called to ask if e-mail could be received while the computer was turned off. Most of the 150 students I worked with needed slow, methodical instructions just to attach a homework assignment to an e-mail.
Of course, it borders on the impossible to complete four years of internet high school when one can barely operate a computer. The Enrollment Department was supposed to screen for this type of thing. But each student meant another $2,500 from the state. Whether we could help a kid or not was irrelevant.
At OHDELA, the only tools students were given were books that arrived via snail-mail, a $600 computer, and advisers like me. Overhead at an internet school is minimal. A Columbus Dispatch investigation revealed that "nearly a third of the state funding received by each school was pocketed by Brennan's operation."
During my year at White Hat, many students came and left, yet I witnessed very few who made progress. I attended the first graduation ceremony of the school's existence. It was a big event, the kind Brennan loves to throw -- with caps and gowns, valedictorians, and truly bad motivational speeches. Twenty graduates out of a school of 1,500 made for a rather pitiful commencement march.
It's no secret that Brennan's schools are failing -- at rates far worse than the abysmal public schools they're meant to replace. White Hat's 20 Ohio Life Skills Centers, for example, are all on either academic watch or emergency. Not one meets the federal standard for yearly progress.
They do, however, meet Brennan's notion of a lucrative enterprise. State audit reports expose the Life Skills Centers as the real moneymaker. The schools, which target low-income students, are often housed in strip malls, herding three shifts of students through per day. They offer no music or art programs, extracurriculars or cafeterias.
Where the rest of the money is going is anyone's guess. Since teachers and administrators are technically employed by the entity of White Hat, not by the schools themselves, the company refuses to divulge such basic information as how many teachers it employs or what qualifications they hold.
The arrangement is beneficial for keeping state auditors at bay. A whopping 97 percent of White Hat's expenses are simply recorded as "professional services contracts" -- with the company providing unknown services to itself.
To legislators preaching fiscal responsibility, allowing such accounting tricks would seem the height of negligence. In 2005 alone, White Hat received $109 million from the state. Only Brennan knows where most of it went. But he's hedged his bets by shoveling millions to those charged with overseeing state money.
According to Sue Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, "Brennan and his family [wife Ann and daughter Nancy] gave $3.8 million to Republican lawmakers between 1990 and 2005." A sizable portion of that went to former state auditors Betty Montgomery and Jim Petro, both fiscal conservatives who nonetheless showed little interest in exploring where the state's money was going.
"Ohio taxpayers have no idea how the vast majority of the money going to Brennan's White Hat chain is being spent," says Taylor. "And no one is riding in to put a stop to it or ask what's happening to these children, because David Brennan makes big political campaign contributions."
I remember when U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige came all the way from Washington to visit our little school.
It was the morning of the company Christmas party, when we were coerced into performing mandatory skits for no beer, no bonus. Paige was coming that day under the guise of witnessing how his buddy, Mr. Brennan -- lavish contributor to the Republican Party -- was revolutionizing education in Ohio.
Prior to his arrival, we'd been given strict direction on how to act if Mr. Paige approached us. Appointed employees were instructed to rehearse an inspirational story or anecdote.
The secretary arrived with his own entourage, even more important looking and smelling than Mr. Brennan's. I peered out from my corner cubicle; we weren't to leave our desks for any reason. There was Mr. Brennan in signature white cowboy hat. He was guiding Paige around the office, allowing the cameras to capture all the back-patting and hand-shaking.
Today, the school's website advertises a quote from Paige, who, upon his return to the White House, called OHDELA "the future of education." Since then, White Hat has used the school as a model to create clones from Florida to Colorado. It now operates 50 publicly funded schools in six states, serving 23,000 students.
I witnessed firsthand Mr. Paige's "future of education." If he's right, America's own future is in deep trouble.