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Whittle Falls on Hard Times, but Edison Model Gives Wichita Hope

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Wichita, Kan.

Even as controversy swirls around the Edison Project like tumbleweed in a Kansas tornado, educational leaders here are eager to give the private, for-profit school-reform effort a shot.

"It will be unfair to public education if we don't get a chance to try it," said Larry R. Vaughn, the superintendent of the 48,000-pupil Wichita school district.

The district made headlines last spring when it became one of the first in the nation to sign a letter of intent to have the Edison Project take over a few of its schools, beginning in the fall of 1995.

The Edison Project is one of several education-reform efforts that hope to create innovative schools that can be replicated on a much larger scale. Many educators view the "scaling up" of effective reform strategies as one of the fundamental challenges in improving the nation's schools. (See Education Week, 11/02/94.)

Wichita residents interviewed recently said the community remains committed to bringing in the Edison Project, but many wonder whether it will actually happen.

The Edison Project, launched three years ago by the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, is now straining to distance itself from the business troubles of its founder. The project is seeking a major infusion of capital, perhaps as much as $50 million, to allow it to take over 10 to 15 public schools next fall.

A recent spate of negative publicity about the demise of Mr. Whittle's media company, Whittle Communications, and about a handful of school districts that backed off their initial interest in the Edison Project, is undoubtedly making the job of attracting critical investment dollars all the more difficult. (See related story )

Nonetheless, educators here and elsewhere argue that Edison's ideas about reinventing public schools with drastically higher student-achievement standards, a longer academic day and year, and more technology to prepare children for the modern workforce, are worth trying in real schools.

"They have culled so many outstanding strategies, if they can put it all under one roof I think they may be able to show us what we need to break away from the mold," said Bernice Venable, the superintendent of the Trenton, N.J., district, which tentatively plans to turn over one school to the Edison Project in 1996.

'A New Dynamic'

Mr. Whittle has always contended that his school-reform ideas were not meant as a means to tinker with the existing system, but to reinvent it.

As the model for the degree of change that was needed in the schools, he cited Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb--an exponential improvement on the lighting power of the candle.

(See education needs a fundamental breakthrough, a new dynamic that will light the way to a transformed educational system," Mr. Whittle once said.

When Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the former president of Yale University, was hired to lead the effort, an underlying goal of the Edison Project remained to develop a school design that would not only make money for its investors, but also be a model for the public schools.

"This is a kind of research-and-development effort, funded with private dollars, that the public school system can benefit from if we are successful," Mr. Schmidt said when he was hired in 1992.

Financial realities, however, forced the project to all but scrap plans for building private schools and instead focus on forming partnerships with school districts.

Nonetheless, the school design developed by Edison's research team has won plaudits from many quarters, including some critics of the nascent movement to turn over public schools to private management.

Edison's design is contained in a 106-page document and a detailed series of student-standards books for the six "academies" that would cover pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in Edison schools.

In short, the Edison plan calls for dividing students into multi-grade academies of about 90 students each. The school day is to run an average of seven hours and the school year would be 210 days. Both are longer than the norm in most public schools.

A rigorous curriculum would emphasize classic books and generally higher academic standards. By the 12th grade, all Edison students would have completed either Advanced Placement calculus or college-level statistics. In addition to key academic subjects, Edison schools plan to emphasize the arts and such practical skills as public speaking.

The project's emphasis on technology is attractive to many observers, especially its promise to install a computer in every student's home. Teachers could send electronic mail to parents, and children could tap data bases for their homework projects.

So many educators from around the country have swamped the Edison Project's New York City headquarters with requests for copies of its design documents that the office has begun to run out of them.

Entrepreneurs Welcome

When Edison Project officials began discussions with local educational leaders about managing public schools, educators in Wichita were eager to listen.

This city of 300,000 on the Kansas plains has a tradition of nurturing those with an entrepreneurial spirit. It is the birthplace and headquarters for such businesses as Cessna Aircraft Company, Beech Aircraft, and Pizza Hut.

The school district, with 68 elementary schools, 16 middle schools, and 13 high schools, has extensive mandatory busing for desegregation and numerous magnet-school programs that send students across the city.

Mr. Vaughn came to Wichita in 1993 after serving as the superintendent of the Pasadena, Tex., district. In Pasadena, Mr. Vaughn was part of a team led by former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell that submitted an unsuccessful application for funding of a reform project to the New American Schools Development Corporation. NASDC is a business-led effort to help finance models of redesigned schools.

"That proposal had a lot of the same things that the Edison Project has," said Mr. Vaughn, a plain-speaking Mississippi native who displays fishing pictures on the walls of his conference room at district headquarters in downtown Wichita.

To Mr. Vaughn, the Edison Project's design appeared to pull together a variety of educational strategies that have been proven to work. Trying them in a few of Wichita's schools might provide "a template to leverage school improvement throughout the district," he said.

"I know we can educate every youngster in America," Mr. Vaughn added. "If you can do it in one place, you can do it in all places."

The superintendent was speaking in late October, when the Edison Project was the focus of several generally critical news articles. The Wall Street Journal reported that some districts had pulled out of initial agreements with Edison, while a lengthy article in The New Yorker magazine detailed Mr. Whittle's business problems and suggested they might discourage further investment in Edison.

Mr. Vaughn appeared unfazed by the stories. Whether the Edison Project attracts the money it needs is out of his hands, he said. If it cannot, the Wichita district will not have lost anything for being willing to try the concept.

"It would have been smoother sailing if Chris Whittle didn't have his problems," he said. "But I happen to trust Benno Schmidt completely."

Racial Balance Considered

That same week last month, the Wichita school board postponed a vote on a formal contract with Edison for the project to take over two elementary schools next fall and a middle school in 1996. District officials said the contract was still being worked out and could be voted on this month.

The biggest concern of board members appeared to be not whether the Edison Project can deliver all it promises, but the selection of one of the tentative Edison sites. Board members feared turning Mueller Elementary School into an Edison site would upset the school's precarious racial balance.

The superintendent later confided that he would, if necessary, substitute another school to avoid losing the board's overall support for the Edison Project.

Jerome Williams, a board member who is an executive with Beech Aircraft, said he supports allowing Edison to take over a handful of schools. He would have a different opinion if the proposal were for the company to take over management of all the city's schools, such as under the Hartford, Conn., school board's recent agreement with Education Alternatives Inc.

"I've been very impressed with their commitment to quality education," Mr. Williams said of Edison. "I think we can live with the negative articles as long as they come up with the dollars. If they don't, we just go in another direction."

In fact, Mr. Vaughn's proposal has won widespread support--from business leaders, the editorial pages of the local newspaper, and even, warily, the local teachers' union.

Wichita's business leaders heard a pitch for the Edison Project directly from Mr. Whittle last spring, and they reacted enthusiastically, several people said.

"Their frustration is that they do not see school districts in the process of dramatically changing the way we educate children," said Connie Dietz, the executive director of the Business-Education Success Team, a local partnership between Wichita-area school districts and corporations.

Local business leaders "are saying they are willing to change the paradigm here," she added.

Brian E. Barents, the president and chief executive officer of Learjet Inc., the Wichita-based producer of corporate jet airplanes, echoed the call for higher standards for the K-12 system.

"What we find right now, even when someone comes to us with a degree, is that their basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic are clearly not there," said Mr. Barents, who listened to one of Mr. Whittle's pitches for Edison. "There is a burden on private industry to teach those skills."

Business leaders seem comfortable with the privatization of a small number of schools, even if the idea makes some people nervous, he said.

"Privatization raises the anxiety level because it's an unknown," Mr. Barents said. "We have to take it one step at a time. And I believe we are doing that by trying it out in two sites."

Union Keeps Wary Eye

The Wichita Federation of Teachers has reacted more skeptically. But the union has not tried to defeat the plan outright, as its leader said would happen if a company such as the Minneapolis-based E.A.I. came along seeking to manage all of the city's schools.

"At this point, we see Edison as being different from E.A.I.," said Greg Jones, the president of the federation. "It is a little difficult to say that Edison shouldn't exist because of what E.A.I. has done."

Mr. Vaughn has made the union an integral player in the discussions with Edison. For instance, the union complained about language in the project's "boilerplate" contract, which resulted in changes to insure that employees at Edison schools could still be represented by the union.

Mr. Jones said the union would ring the alarm bell if more public funding than the district per-pupil average were directed to the Edison schools or if only the best students were chosen for them.

"Once one penny more of tax dollars is spent on an Edison school, we are against it," Mr. Jones said.

He also called on the superintendent to avoid becoming a cheerleader for Edison--"the way," he charged, "the Baltimore superintendent [Walter G. Amprey] has become for E.A.I."

"I believe our local union is willing to look at new approaches," Mr. Jones added. "Look at the plan itself. It it didn't say 'Edison Project school,' but said 'A.F.T. school,' we would love it. This is the kind of school Al Shanker [the president of the American Federation of Teachers] would design."

Reaction at Dodge School

While the selection of Mueller Elementary School as an Edison site was being re-evaluated, Mr. Vaughn said he would likely stick with his plan to turn Dodge Elementary School on Wichita's West Side over to the project next year.

The selection of Dodge seems to be a challenge to the Edison Project's ability to turn around a low-achieving school with a diverse student population, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dodge Elementary is a single-story maze of corridors connecting an original wing, built in 1938, with two newer portions. Only the newest wing, built in 1976, has air-conditioned classrooms.

The school serves a low- to middle-income neighborhood that is mostly white, but a significant number of African-American children are bused in each day from other Wichita neighborhoods. More than 75 percent of Dodge's 425 students in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The school's test scores rank near the bottom among the city's elementary schools.

"If you can be successful at Dodge, you should be successful at any school," said Mr. Vaughn.

Dodge's teachers were not thrilled to be told on the last day of the academic year in June of the selection of their school for the Edison Project.

"I sort of dropped the news like a bomb," the superintendent said.

Karen Lawson, a longtime kindergarten teacher at the school, recalled that teachers were upset. "The way he introduced, it was a little less than pleasant," she said.

This fall, however, school district and Edison Project officials have held meetings for teachers and parents, and as they have explained the goals of the project, much of the anxiety has waned.

For one thing, Edison will hire its own teachers from the current Dodge ranks or from outside. Those Dodge teachers who are not interested or who are not hired will be guaranteed a job elsewhere within the Wichita system.

And if Dodge Elementary becomes an Edison school next fall, student enrollment will be voluntary, with some preference going to neighborhood residents and other current students.

Change Needed

Several teachers appeared eager to remain at the school under Edison, even if that means a longer school year and greater accountability for student performance.

"I'm with Dr. Vaughn in that if public education doesn't change, we are in a lot of trouble," said Janice Fanter, a 2nd-grade teacher. "Those of us looking at Edison are the risk-takers of the world. Many teachers are not used to the thought of losing their jobs if they are not doing their jobs."

Nancy Varneke, a reading instructor in the Title I remedial program, said she sent away for Edison booklets over the summer and changed her initial negative opinion of the project.

"We need a change. We really do," she said. "It will be more efficiently run. If it's the Edison Project or something else, we need a change."

But she struck a cautionary note about the project's promise to provide computers in every home and other expensive improvements.

"I see lots of good, but it sounds too good to be true," Ms. Varneke said. "You know the saying, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are some unanswered questions."

Last month, to address some of those questions, Mr. Schmidt and other Edison officials met with Dodge employees and parents.

One question that seemed to catch the Edison representatives off guard came from a parent: How would a computer link to the school be possible for those who do not have basic telephone service? Several observers said it seemed Edison's relatively well-paid executives had never considered that some parents in Wichita cannot afford basic telephone service.

John Cummings, the father of two current Dodge students and a worker at the Boeing Company's Wichita plant, said he opposes the Edison Project and has already begun to look for other schools to send his children to next year.

"Their track record is totally unproven," he said. "I'm sure they are trying to do a good thing, but there is a lot of conflict with bringing business into the public schools. This company has tapped into a source of very level, very secure income."

But Lisa Gorton, the president of Dodge's Parent-Teacher Organization, said most parents like the concept once their basic questions are answered.

"It's something good for Dodge that really hasn't happened here," she said.

Jacqueline Lane, the interim principal at Dodge, said she is uncertain whether she will be here next year, because Edison and the district would choose the principals for the two schools. She has Edison booklets strewn around the back seat of her car and says she would apply for the job.

"We know what effective practices there are," she said. "What seems to be the strong point of Edison is that they have put a lot of effective practices together. They've said, 'We know through research that this works.'"

"Until we get people to do that paradigm shift," she added, echoing some of Mr. Vaughn's school-improvement jargon, "we will fall back into doing what is comfortable to us. And what is comfortable isn't working."

The "Scaling Up" series is underwritten by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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