Editor’s Note: As of 2017, more than a quarter million children in grades K-12 were enrolled in 528 full-time online schools, also known as e-learning or cyber schools—a trend that continues to grow. For parents with children in the mental health system or who struggle with school for one reason or another, this option can look attractive. As this essay suggests, some virtual programs may not be what they seem.
I was dying for a career change. My current job in customer service was a good way to make money but I didn’t feel like I was doing enough to make positive changes in the world. What about teaching? I took the plunge and posted my resume at the job portal Care.com. It didn’t take long before an agency with a dubious-sounding name contacted me via email about a “Virtual Personal Care Assistant” position.
Considering that this agency, which I’ll call ABC, claims to service “hundreds of students” across my state, I was surprised to find no information about them online or anywhere else. They told me that they needed someone to service the online Agora Cyber Charter School and sent me a contract immediately. I was baffled as to why they would hire someone without interviewing them.
A quick glance at employee reviews on the Indeed and Glassdoor job sites gave me a grim picture of this school. While a few disgruntled employees are to be expected, the amount of dissatisfaction with the position was too high for comfort. Still, the pay was much higher than I expected—over $20 an hour, according to my contract. The minimum wage in my state is $7.25 an hour, and this was an entry-level job. As a psychiatric survivor with almost no work history, I couldn’t afford to pass it up.
They asked me to get fingerprinted, which I paid for, and also told me they needed an FBI background check and another background check that showed I had never abused a child. That was standard. But the contract quite clearly stated that I was not permitted, at any time, to discuss my pay with anyone.
The reason why became clearer when I dug deeper into the internet. I found out that the students I would be “servicing,” had been placed on Medicaid, and that Medicaid would be paying my salary. More digging into this school’s murky history told me everything I suspected. In 2009, Agora had been charged with fraud and bilking taxpayers to make huge profits off an improperly managed charter school.
Still, I signed my contract but couldn’t start working until ABC explained exactly what I was supposed to be doing. After at least a week, the agency called me, apologized for not interviewing me (likely wanting me to stay quiet on the issue) and then outlined my job tasks. I was supposed to “follow” (sit in on) the students in their remote classes, observing and documenting what they did. I was also to prompt them by encouraging them to participate, communicate with their family and teachers, and act as a liaison and advocate for the students and their families. I stated that I would be very happy to do this! It seemed like a great job for a person with my personal history.
Still, the job title, Virtual Personal Care Assistant, eluded me. An online search for Virtual PCA resulted in nothing useful. A PCA normally helps a person, often elderly, with household chores such as laundry, and might assist with toileting and other aspects of personal care. Nothing about what I was doing seemed like “personal care,” especially since the students all lived so far away there was no possibility I could visit them at home. My position wasn’t at all medical, and yet Medicaid, which pays for medical expenses, would be paying me handsomely. I wondered if I was called a Virtual PCA because doing so would make Medicaid billing easier.
The agency sent me .pdf files of the individualized educational program (IEP) documentation for each student. The students were rated on numeric scales determined by behavioral testing. There were recommendations and goals listed for each student. Most of these recommendations were related not to reading, writing, and ’rithmetic but to behavior control and obedience to adults.
Judging from these IEP documents, you would think the kids were so disabled that they couldn’t put a sentence together. The school’s behavior specialists had tested the children for any disorder they could think of including autism, and any learning disability they could think of, including “emotional disturbance” and “inappropriate language and behavior.”
The documents reminded me that back in my psychiatric patient days, I had once had an IEP during grad school. My therapist had written that due to my debilitating “medications,” I might get tired sometimes and that if I had trouble staying awake, I should be excused from classes. These students, however, weren’t like that: When I “met” with them and their parents over the phone, I heard a different story.
The school seemed to be working very hard to prove through testing that the kids were disabled and to get them certified as such. I realized that doing this was to the school’s advantage, since getting the kids qualified for Medicaid meant they could exploit it for profit. As one teacher later pointed out to me, “This is the last stop for many of these kids. No other school would take them.” However, I later learned the reason the students had been kicked out of their previous schools was that they were being bullied.
Later, I learned from one of the behavior specialists I worked with that she had tested the students virtually—that is, through the computer interface. She told me that one student had excused himself in the middle of the test and then returned 90 minutes later. From this, she had concluded he must have been “distracted” all that time. I was laughing inside. Didn’t she realize he was pulling the wool over her eyes?
As I soon learned, this kind of trickery happens frequently in cyber schools, which use the Blackboard interface for teaching all classes. It couldn’t be further from a real classroom environment: The kids can hear, but not see, the teacher except for his or her picture. The teacher runs through a pre-designed PowerPoint presentation provided, like all the materials, by the school’s parent company, K12. To respond to the teacher or otherwise participate, the kids mostly sent text messages.
In this environment, most teachers had an underhanded way of taking attendance in this environment, such as asking the kids to post a smiley as proof they were still there. The kids knew each teacher’s patterns well, however, and knew how to sneak out of class. They were far smarter and more insightful than the school ever gave them credit for.
After I had been working with Agora for about a week, the employment agency finally wanted me to fill out an application and send a list of references. They also wanted to verify a job I’d held nearly 40 years ago and said they needed a recommendation from a recent job that had nothing to do with children.
Things got even weirder after I pointed out a potential issue with one of the students and informed the behavior specialists that I was concerned about things happening at home. The specialists insisted that none of my observations were relevant. “The important thing is behavior correction,” they told me. I strongly objected and even offered to speak regularly with the student and his parent to see how things were going. The specialists responded by flooding me with emails insisting that I cease communication with the child’s parent. This upset and confused me because my job description specified that I was to communicate with the family. I phoned the hiring agency and told them my concerns. Sadly, the agency deferred to the school.
Here I’d thought this would be my chance to make positive changes in children’s lives, but this school was preventing me from doing anything productive. One of the teachers summed up my role like this: “It’s your job to make sure the kids stay in class.”
Another colleague insisted, “You must keep track of the kids. The school is responsible for them. What if they go out and rob a bank?” This made no sense since she had already told me that these children were disabled and incapable.
I soon discovered something else that looked fishy after I began to poke around on EasyTrac, an interface I’d been instructed to use and to log my services; that is, my observations and the “prompts” I was giving to each child. To log in, I had to select the school I was working for from a list of public and charter schools across the state and country. Once I had picked Charter, and then Agora and was logged in, I noted a tab off to the right that said: “About PCG.” Where had I heard those initials before? I clicked on the tab and discovered they stood for Public Consulting Group.
Now I remembered: I had seen that name in a 2013 NPR series titled “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” The article, by Chana Joffe Walt, had stirred immense controversy when it was released. Scroll down in the story and you’ll find details about PCG, a “private company that states pay to comb their welfare rolls and move as many people as possible onto disability.”
Joffe reported, “A person on welfare costs a state money. That same resident on disability doesn’t cost the state a cent, because the federal government covers the entire bill for people on disability…. The company gets paid by the state every time it moves someone off of welfare and onto disability. In recent contract negotiations with Missouri, PCG asked for $2,300 per person.”
The story also discusses how growing numbers of children with learning struggles are exploited by branding them disabled and enrolling them in a special program providing monthly Social Security checks.
I knew as soon as I saw PCG listed in EasyTrac that I had discovered a potential gold mine of corruption. While I was in there, I found I could also access the “progress reports” of some of the behavior specialists, so I took a peek. While my notes about my students were detailed, describing my observation of real events, the other providers provided only perfunctory data such as “turned in one assignment,” or “responded to adult in ten seconds.”
The Last Straws
The conflict I felt between my conscience and the reality of working at Agora was getting worse. I knew I had been hired to act as a go-between, but now I realized they expected me to play the role of cop. What could I do, though? I tried (and am still trying) to contact the state Department of Education and other organizations—all in vain.
There were days that I had to walk away from the computer and pull myself together time and time again. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, I reached my limit. One of the teachers verbally abused me. If he was treating me this way, how did he treat his students? I was reminded, then, of the verbal abuse I had endured in a hospital back when I was still in the mental health system. I couldn’t take it anymore.
My phone rang. It was my friend. She was understandably concerned about me. I felt embarrassed to get choked up in tears over the phone, but I couldn’t stop crying. We concluded that I should quit. The question wasn’t if, but when. Could I tolerate one more week, and during that time gather as much information about the company as I could?
I had barely stopped crying when the agency called me about a complaint I’d made about Agora. They attempted to misinterpret my prior complaints about the school, twisting my words by saying, “We’re sorry the children upset you.”
Again and again, I told them (on a recorded line), “No, it’s not the kids that bug me. Of course not! It’s the school. The school wants a cop. They don’t want a person who cares about the kids. What this school is doing is just plain wrong!”
At that point, I quit. Or maybe they fired me, I’m not sure. It didn’t matter: I just wanted to move on, although I felt very sad that I never got to say goodbye to the kids and their parents.
On the Record
Unfortunately, the agency kept me on the phone, threatening me over and over that HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, prevented me from exposing what I knew about my ex-employer. HIPAA regulates the medical information we share with each other and the public. It does not state that we cannot reveal information about our providers.
Nevertheless, the agency insisted that I “shred all documents.” I did not actually have any paper documents. Since I was not providing any medical services, wasn’t it FERPA I’d be violating if I revealed any academic details about the children?
I told them (twice for emphasis), “I still have my memory. I can shred any documents you want. But you cannot shred me.”
Before I could be released from my job, though, I had to finish up my documentation on EasyTrac. I did not spare anything. I even documented the verbal abuse I had to endure at the hands of a cyber teacher. I don’t believe the school can change what I wrote, so a permanent record of what happened now exists.
Later, when the agency wrote to me assuring me I would be paid, they pasted into the email two paragraphs from my contract. They included these words: “Disclosing confidential information or improperly discussing the client condition is unacceptable practice and are terms for termination.”
Well? My job is over, so I have little to fear. But the agency, and the school, certainly does.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.