To Rob York, it almost seems as if his roots and different career branches have led him to his current position as president of Advanced Academics — an Oklahoma City company that offers round-the-clock online courses so overachievers and would-be dropouts can climb their own trees of knowledge, on largely their own terms.
York's parents, and York himself, would have been candidates for such flexible, custom-made alternatives, he said. His mom was in her last semester at Columbia University, studying to teach English and Spanish, when the Great Depression cut her college, and dreams, short, York said. His dad — though smart — bucked structure, so he never graduated from high school, he said.
Meanwhile, York was a sort of dropout himself, fleeing midway through high school to a rural town whose school had limited curriculum, he said.
Advanced Academics — which was started by two teachers in Ponca City 12 years ago and acquired four years ago by Chicago-based DeVry Inc. — partners with hundreds of school districts in Oklahoma, Minnesota, New York, California, Washington and 25 other states to deliver to tens of thousands of sixth- through 12th-grade students one-on-one online instruction in core and higher-level math, social studies, science and English courses. Students can study from their personal computers, laptops, smartphones or iPads wherever there's Internet connectivity and whenever, York said. Peak hours are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., he said.
The company, which has annual revenues of $20 million, employs 185, 145 of whom are based in its Bricktown offices, he said.
York, 57, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his professional and personal life. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Can you tell us little about your ancestry and childhood?
A: My dad was from the West Coast and mom, the East Coast. They met after she relocated from New York City to San Francisco to take a job as a legal secretary with a corrugated box company, where my father worked as a salesman. I was their only child. I started high school in Oakland with 3,000 kids. I played every sport and all my buddies were black; 85 percent of the school was. But, prompted by my father's drinking problem, I decided to leave home at age 15 and move 125 miles north of San Francisco to rural Middletown. I lived with teachers I'd met in summer camp, and graduated valedictorian in an all-white class of 18. My experiences at the two very different schools, urban/black and rural/white, gave me a balanced view of the world that I still hold today.
Q: And college?
A: I went on a full-ride basketball scholarship to Yuba College, 70 miles north of Sacramento. Upon graduation, I walked on the basketball team at Sacramento State, but quit after I dislocated my shoulder in a wreck with my new Ford Maverick. Turned out, it was the best thing, because I got more focused on my studies. I finished at San Diego State, where I worked in the intramural department.
Q: How'd you start your career?
A: After a year working in the recreation department of Spring Valley, Calif., my wife, Barbara, and I started a summer recreation camp, leasing 110 acres in Calistoga, Calif. In 1984, Barbara started working full time as a nurse, as well, and I started selling for the school division of Oklahoma City-based American Fidelity Assurance Co. Then, we got real silly and decided to have children. We had too many balls in the air, so we closed the camp after 10 years. But there was nothing better than seeing young people experience something they never thought they could do, like rappel off a cliff, rock climb or water ski.
Q: What brought you to Oklahoma?
A: We relocated to southeast Edmond in 1995 — when my daughters were in the third and fifth grades — for me to take a middle management position with American Fidelity. When I left the company in 1999, I was a regional manager, traveling two weeks of every four. Just prior to joining Advanced Academics, I commuted for three years to San Francisco to work for a California-based firm that provided online benefit and payroll applications to small businesses. I'd fly out every Monday and return every Friday.
Q: How'd you come to join Advanced Academics?
A: A former colleague at American Fidelity was its acting CFO and initially recruited me as a board member in 2000. In late 2002, I started working in sales and marketing; then held an operations role for five years before being named president this past April. The opportunity has been the high point of my career. The best part is when I travel to schools nationwide and meet the students we help achieve.