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In Dade County, Company Gears Up To Help District Run a Public

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By Ann Bradley

Miami Beach, Fla.--Students who enter the new South Pointe Elementary School here in the fall of 1991 will not see a teacher standing before neat rows of desks, ready to begin the day's lesson with stacks of freshly printed workbooks.

Instead, they will find carpeted classrooms with low tables, computer terminals, shelves of children's literature, and two teachers ready to help them begin an individualized plan of instruction.

They will be taught "the Tesseract way," following a method devised by Education Alternatives Inc., a private, for-profit company based in Minneapolis.

The Dade County, Fla., school board on June 27 is expected to approve a five-year contract that will allow the Minnesota firm to develop the educational program for the soon-to-be-built public school--and to train its principal and teachers.

The partnership will mark the first time that a public school system has entered into such an agreement with a private business.

John T. Golle, Education Alternatives' chairman and chief executive officer, called the arrangement a departure from the business community's tradition of offering educators advice, but not actively participating in finding better solutions.

"There are a lot of business people who are on the shore, shouting instructions to the crew," he said. "We are in the boat--we are the crew."

The foundation for the unusual relationship was laid last year, when the Dade County Public Schools announced its Saturn Schools project, a nationwide search for innovative proposals for the design and operation of 49 new schools. (See Education Week, June 7, 1989.)

Education Alternatives submitted a plan that would transfer methods it has developed for its private schools in Eagan, Minn., and Paradise Valley, Ariz., to a public-school setting.

The proposal, built on individualized instruction, a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio, extensive use of technology, a schoolwide climate celebrating learning, and a professional atmosphere for teaching, intrigued educators here.

In December, the school district signed a $25,000, six-month contract with the company to begin examining how a Tesseract school could be built in South Miami Beach.

The area to be served by the school is known for its Art Deco district of cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs. But behind the gaudy pastels of beachfront hotels are modest apartment buildings that house some of the county's poorest residents, many of whom are recent immigrants.

South Pointe Elementary will be a Chapter 1 "schoolwide project" school, since the majority of its 550 students will qualify for compensatory-education services.

Students who will be enrolled there are now crowded into an elementary-school complex that serves 1,600 children. Eighty-eight percent of them are Hispanic, 10 percent are black, and 2 percent are white.

In contrast, the children who attend the two existing Tesseract schools have families that can afford to pay at least $4,500 in annual tuition.

But Dade County educators and Education Alternatives executives say the Tesseract approach has succeeded with children who were on the brink of being labeled learning-disabled or expelled from school.

"One of the things we were concerned about was whether we would see a sameness among their students that would allow their process to work here," said Yvonne Burkholz, director of the United Teachers of Dade's department of labor and community relations and co-chairman of the committee working to develop the South Pointe school.

"However," she said, "their students are by no means cookie-cutter."

The philosophy that undergirds the Tesseract schools was developed by a subsidiary of Control Data Corporation called ussa Private Schools Incorporated. Educators employed by the firm spent $1 million traveling the country to develop a model for the ideal elementary school.

Five themes emerged from their research: that instruction would be customized to prevent children from "falling through the cracks"; that active, rather than passive, learning would be emphasized; that students would master skills or concepts before moving on; that parents would be "active partners" in their children's education; and that extended-day and summer programs would be offered.

Control Data decided not to get into the private-school business, however, and Education Alternatives was formed in 1986 to put the concepts into practice. Mr. Golle, who bought the company that year, also owns Golle & Holmes Custom Education, which produces training programs for businesses.

Mr. Golle said his interest in education had a very personal beginning: His 19-year-old son is learning disabled, he said, and "fell through the cracks" of the public education system in Minnesota.

The firm took the name for its schools from Madeleine L'Engle's children's book, A Wrinkle in Time, which uses the term tesseract to describe an imaginary fifth-dimensional corridor for traveling to new destinations.

Kathryn A. Thomas, Education Alternative's director of education and operations, says students at the Tesseract schools have scored an average gain of 1.88 grade levels on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. The schools, built for about 250 students each, opened in 1987 and 1988.

The company expects to register similar "dramatic, quantifiable results" here, she said, within three years.

At the heart of the Tesseract approach is a "personal education plan" drawn up by teachers in consultation with the student and his parents.

Children are evaluated first to determine whether they are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. Knowing how a child learns best helps teachers explain concepts to students, said Ms. Thomas, and can provide clues to students' behavior.

Many schools, she said, "miseducate" children because they expect all of them to learn the same way.

"I was a teacher who miseducated a lot of children," said Ms. Thomas. "I didn't do it intentionally, I just didn't understand learning modalities."

The personal education plan, called the PEP, also reflects Education Alternatives' belief that teachers should accept children at their individual skill levels, rather than "fitting them into a box," as Ms. Thomas put it.

After goals are set, students work at their own pace to meet them, whether alone at a computer terminal or in small groups. At South Pointe, learning-disabled and gifted students will not be removed from the classroom for special instruction or isolated in any way from their peers.

During a recent visit here to explain the Tesseract concept to Dade County teachers and principals and to the South Miami Beach community, Ms. Thomas repeatedly described the atmosphere in a Tesseract school as an "educational buzz."

Teachers are viewed as facilitators of the students' learning, rather than as "pourers of knowledge," she said.

Instead of relying heavily on workbooks and photocopied materials to occupy students, Tesseract schools are equipped, Ms. Thomas said, with a wide range of "manipulatives"--objects that can be handled and examined--that children use to explore the concepts they are mastering.

For example, in the mathematics curriculum, geometric shapes, blocks, and other hands-on materials are employed to supplement computer instruction and a textbook.

Classrooms are also liberally stocked with children's literature, used to teach reading. And students write and "publish" their own books, which others can check out and read.

All students in the Tesseract schools learn Spanish, through a program that emphasizes songs, rhymes, and stories. Older students in the Spanish course learn by using puppets, games, and hands-on projects.

The process of setting goals for each child is a "wonderful way to get things straight" between parents' expectations and teachers' educational goals, said Frank R. Petruzielo, associate superintendent of Dade County's bureau of professionalization. It also creates, he said, a "policy expectation" about parental involvement.

"It won't be an acceptable model in that school to say, 'I tried, but the parent didn't respond,"' Mr. Petruzielo noted. "Unfortunately, in some schools here, that is now acceptable."

Much of the negotiations between the district and Education Alternatives have centered on finding sources of money needed to replicate the Tesseract program at South Pointe.

As with the other Saturn School projects, the school will receive no more money than any other Dade County school receives. But Education Alternatives will have wide latitude in deciding how to spend the allocation.

In its initial plan, Education Alternatives proposed to supplement the district's allotment with money raised from Dade County's business community. The company's fee, which has not yet been determined, also would come from such sources and not from public funds.

Mr. Golle said that Education Alternatives will be "spending more than we're charging them, I'll assure you that."

"We will try very hard not [to lose money]," he said, "but we couldn't charge them enough to come out of it" with a profit.

As negotiations have progressed, Ms. Thomas reported, she has become less concerned about raising substantial amounts of money to supplement the school's normal allocation. Chapter 1 money will help lower class size to approximately 18 to 1, she said, while a proposed differentiated staffing model will enable the school to reach the desired 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

Whenever she mentioned the student-teacher ratios planned for South Pointe, Ms. Thomas was greeted by gasps from her audiences here. The numbers are particularly striking because Florida's budget problems recently have forced the Dade County school board to increase its anticipated class size by two pupils, which could bring elementary class sizes to as many as 32 students.

The differentiated staffing plan at South Pointe would pair one veteran teacher and another, more junior, teacher in each class of 24 students. The second teacher might be a trained paraprofessional, a recent graduate of a teacher-education program, or an intern from a local university, according to Ms. Burkholz of the United Teachers of Dade.

To achieve the low student-teacher ratios, Education Alternatives will eliminate traditional positions such as counselors and librarians. And the principal and lead teachers of the school also will decide whether they want the standard art, music, and physical-education services usually provided to elementary schools. District officials said the school might decide to use the money for such positions to hire more paraprofessionals.

Mr. Petruzielo said that by departing from time-honored staffing patterns, the school will be "goring a lot of people's oxes."

"What it means," he said, "is moving away from the interest-group model that has influenced public policy in education."

Although teachers at the elementary schools that will be relieved of overcrowding by the addition of South Pointe were generally enthusiastic about the Tesseract program, Beverly Heller, an advocate of special programs for the gifted, was not. She said she thought it was "wrong" not to offer such children special enrichment courses.

To Rachelle Arkin, however, the Tesseract method of hands-on instruction sounded ideal. "I'm going to apply," she said.

To give South Pointe students the feeling of "community and family" Tesseract schools seek, the Florida school will be organized into communities of 125 to 150 students. Each teacher will know each student, and the students in different grades will work together.

"This will be a shared school, a celebrated school," Ms. Thomas said. "Not, 'I do my thing in my classroom and someone else does something different."'

One of the school's "communities" will serve children who do not speak English. They will be instructed in Spanish with English taught as their foreign-language component.

The school will offer a third language, probably Italian or French, to students who are bilingual, while students who speak only English will learn Spanish.

Ms. Thomas said the goal of the instructional program for non-English-speaking students will be to move them as quickly as possible into classes taught in English.

Education Alternatives will work closely with district personnel officials and the principal chosen to lead the school in selecting its teachers. Finding the right teachers is considered critical to its success.

"Teachers will not work from 8:30 to 3:30, I can guarantee that," said Marvin Weiner, the assistant superintendent in whose region the school will be built and co-chairman of the South Pointe committee. "There has to be a dedication and a commitment to start off."

The principal hired to organize the school, who will be called the executive director, and up to four lead teachers will travel to the Tesseract schools in Minnesota and Arizona for training. But all faculty members will receive extensive training from Education Alternatives, beginning in the summer of 1991 and continuing throughout the school year.

Under the Saturn Schools program, the principal and a lead teacher for a new school are hired a year in advance of the opening in order to give them time to plan the program.

The first round of bids for constructing the school were 30 percent over the budgeted amount, and the project had to be rebid. The district recently received an acceptable bid of $6.48 million.

Ms. Thomas said she has been frustrated by the delays and the lingering uncertainty over exactly when the building will be finished. She had also hoped to be able to hire the South Pointe principal in July, but must now wait until September because of the district's budget constraints.

Because South Pointe will operate under Dade County's school-based management program, many of the details of its Tesseract program will remain unsettled until the principal and lead teacher have been hired. Making too many program decisions without the staff would run counter to the district's emphasis on teacher professionalism and shared decisionmaking, officials said.

But under the proposed contract with Education Alternatives, the South Pointe faculty will not be permitted to make significant changes in the Tesseract education plan.

"A principal or a teacher is in some ways limited," noted Mr. Petruzielo, who said that Education Alternatives' executives have "made their choices on some of the key educational-philosophy issues."

On the other hand, much of the Tesseract program mirrors the type of professional climate Dade County is trying to build in its schools. Each teacher at South Pointe, for example, will have a phone at a "work station" to encourage contact between students, parents, and teachers.

In fact, teachers at the new school will be evaluated, in part, by their students' parents, using a process Education Alternatives calls its "Quality of Service Index."

The QSI is considered to be the school's report card, and it will be completed in the spring and fall by parents of South Pointe students. Teachers also will be evaluated under the district's current system.

Perhaps more important, Education Alternatives and Dade County officials are negotiating an incentive-pay system for teachers that would be based in part on the parent evaluations.

Teachers at the two existing Tesseract schools are paid bonuses, but Ms. Burkholz of the teachers' union said she "probably will not not agree to the word bonuses" because of its negative connotations.

"In a lot of Saturn schools, teachers who take on additional responsibilities receive incentives," Ms. Burkholz added. "My initial feeling is, if we use that term, we will be able to design an incentive plan."

In general, Ms. Burkholz noted, negotiations for the contract with Education Alternatives have gone smoothly. "None of the [teaching] contract issues are insurmountable," she said, "or even difficult."

Anticipated waivers to the contract include provisions to allow teachers to attend more faculty meetings, receive more training, use their planning days in different ways, and be paid for working a longer school year. The differentiated staffing model and wage scale also will need waivers.

In Mr. Golle's view, the concept of using parents to evaluate teachers breaks the traditional logjam over merit-pay proposals, which have often faltered on the question of how objective evaluations of teaching would be performed.

More objective evaluations are possible at Tesseract schools, Mr. Golle said, because of their extensive use of technology to track students' progress on goals agreed upon by a student's parents and teacher.

Education Alternatives has proposed forming a partnership with the International Business Machines Corporation to supply the computers and software needed for South Pointe.

The building plans will be modified to allow for the telephone lines and cable to support an extensive computer system. Computers will provide security for the school, help its administrative staff keep track of attendance, and "help teachers teach," according to Mr. Golle.

Teachers will monitor by computer students' progress in meeting the goals of their personal education plans. They will also log observations about the student and record accomplishments that can later be shared with parents or other teachers.

Computers "keep track of what a child knows and doesn't know," said Mr. Golle, "so that a teacher can teach things the child doesn't know."

"That doesn't mean that every child has to get an A in order for the teacher to be given an incentive," he cautioned. Education Alternatives plans to seek a waiver from the district's policy on student report cards, he said, in order to make South Pointe a "nongraded" school. Students would be measured against their progress on the PEPs and on Dade County's standardized tests.

In addition to computer terminals in the classrooms, teachers will also have laptop computers that they can take home and use to keep track of student records or prepare reports for parents, the company executive said. The computerized records would follow students if they transferred from South Pointe.

Because the area's highly mobile student population turns over about every two years, Dade County offi8cials are exploring the possibility of making South Pointe a magnet school. That would allow families who move away from South Miami Beach, where rents have climbed as the area's popularity as a center of nightlife has grown, to continue sending their children to the school.

Mr. Weiner said the district's first concern in drawing up plans for a magnet program would be racial balance.

But, judging from comments made during Ms. Thomas's presentations here, it appears likely that school officials will encounter pressures from the more well-to-do parents who live on the islands that dot Biscayne Bay to allow their children access to the Tesseract program.

Many of these parents now send their children to private or parochial schools. But some, such as Debbie Krieger, who attended a Kiwanis Club luncheon at which Ms. Thomas spoke, have expressed interest in a high-quality public-school program.

"The truth is," Ms. Krieger said, "the interested parent with the high-achieving student does not live in that district, and I see that as a problem."

During a question-and-answer session at the luncheon, one audience member asked Ms. Thomas how teachers at the school would be able to work with South Miami Beach parents, some of whom, the questioner said, are "drug dealers or prostitutes."

Ms. Thomas responded that interested business leaders, senior citizens, or other community members could join forces with a student at South Pointe and be an integral part of that child's education.

"If mom and dad don't want to come to the school, we will find someone in the community who wants to be involved," she said.

Officials of both the district and Education Alternatives say that, if they can show the same success at South Pointe that other Tesseract schools have demonstrated, they will have created an educational model that can be replicated here or elsewhere across the country.

The district plans to carefully document expenditures to show exactly how much more money is needed for the program.

Dade County has lobbied the Florida legislature repeatedly for more money, but Mr. Petruzielo, for one, believes Education Alternatives may help the district prove its point.

"Creating this kind of partnership with a business can only raise our credibility," he said.

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