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The Lights Come Up on First Four Edison Project Schools

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Mount Clemens, Mich.

Ailing men and women from across the country used to flock to this city near Detroit to be invigorated by the mineral waters of its dozens of bathhouse resorts.

Mount Clemens' new claim to fame is its participation in a nationally watched experiment intended to revitalize American public education.

The 3,100-student Mount Clemens school district last year became the first in the nation to sign a contract with the Edison Project, the for-profit school-reform venture formed by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle.

That contract came to life late last month at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, an elementary school that the New York City-based Edison Project will run in partnership with the school district and the local teachers' union.

"We think that Mount Clemens is doing it right, and many cities in Michigan and across the United States are going to follow your lead," Mr. Whittle told community leaders during a reception Aug. 21, the opening day of a 210-day school year that will extend until late June.

The Mount Clemens school was the third "partnership school" that Edison officials opened last month. Washington Elementary School opened in Sherman, Texas, on Aug. 1, and the Dodge-Edison Partnership Elementary School opened in Wichita, Kan., on Aug. 14. The last of what planners hope will merely be the first round of Edison schools opens next week in Boston. The Boston Renaissance School will operate under a charter issued by the state and will be the project's largest school, with more than 600 students.

Computers at Home

Enrollment at the King Academy here is voluntary and open to parents throughout the district. But interest so outstripped demand that the Edison Project school was moved to a larger building to accommodate close to 500 students, instead of an original target of 375, district officials said.

It appears that Edison has stuck close to the much-ballyhooed design and curriculum developed over the past few years by a research team that included Chester E. Finn Jr., a U.S. Department of Education official during the Reagan Administration, and John Chubb, a leading proponent of opening public education to free-market influences.

In addition to a longer school day and year, the design includes instruction in Spanish beginning in kindergarten, cooperative learning in "houses" of students that will stay together for two years, and a rigorous curriculum with a heavy emphasis on the classics, character education, and technology.

The technology component of the Edison design quickly attracts notice because of the promise to place a computer in every child's home and connect it to a school network. Once the computers are installed sometime this fall--after parents and children undergo required training--parents will be able to communicate by electronic mail with teachers. Teachers, meanwhile, have all received laptop computers.

"Computers are one of those skills that are a must," said Shannon Rose, a restaurant manager whose daughter entered kindergarten at the school.

Charles Newton, the technology director of the school, said that based on a survey of parents, only 5 percent of King Academy families have a home computer.

"We approach technology as a second language," he said. "The concept is to make it as easy as speaking English.

Greeting the Customers

As construction workers put the finishing touches on an estimated $1 million in renovations to the Mount Clemens building, students attended a half-day of school on opening day, then returned with their parents for an evening open house.

Parents roamed the halls of the King Academy to inspect the new carpeting, the freshly painted walls, and the television and four computers in each classroom.

"I'm very impressed," said Cindi Lee, a school-bus driver who was trying out a computer in her son's 1st-grade classroom. "The curriculum seems so much more intense than you would get in a normal elementary school. I just hope everything goes the way they say it will."

Few parents at the open house seemed concerned about the Edison Project's rocky path from Mr. Whittle's vision to the launch of the four inaugural schools. He once dreamed of opening hundreds of private schools, and even after Edison switched to the concept of managing public schools, there was talk of starting with 10 to 15 in the first year.

"I'm glad we didn't do 10 [this year]. That would be too many," Mr. Whittle said in an interview in the King Academy's air-conditioned media center just before the open house. "We're just going to learn a whole lot this year."

Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the president of the Edison Project, appeared to be on businesslike terms with Mr. Whittle at the Mount Clemens opening. Mr. Whittle wooed him from the presidency of Yale University in 1992 to lead the project. Last year, Mr. Schmidt unsuccessfully tried to oust Mr. Whittle as chairman after the financial collapse of the Whittle Communications business empire made it difficult to attract investors to the Edison Project.

Mr. Whittle agreed this year to share leadership duties of the Edison Project with the Sprout Group, a venture-capital concern that invested $30 million to help launch the project.

After refusing to be pushed aside, Mr. Whittle is still very much the chief salesman for the Edison Project, and he reveled in leading a question-and-answer session for parents at the open house. "You're our customers," he told them.

Many parents were attracted to the school by the involvement of Deborah McGriff, an Edison vice president who is a former superintendent of the Detroit school district.

"I knew it would be a wonderful school if Dr. McGriff was involved," said Misty Brooks, whose son is a 4th-grade student at the King Academy.

Marketing Ploy?

Private management of public education has been highly controversial, and the school districts that have hired the Edison Project are ready for close scrutiny.

"I like to say we are going to be under a magnifying glass in a microscope," said Blanche E. Fraser, the superintendent of the Mount Clemens district. "Some people will embellish our results with a magnifying glass. The people with the microscope would like to see us fail, and they will look for any cracks in the program."

Critics argue that the basic public mission of educating students should not be turned over to for-profit businesses because they ultimately will put their own interests above students'.

Henry Levin, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University and a critic of privatization, said it will be difficult to evaluate whether efforts such as the Edison Project are really improving achievement at the same per-pupil cost as existing schools.

"The people making deals are more than happy to have Edison pour in extra money to their schools," said Mr. Levin, who is the founder of a reform effort called the Accelerated Schools Project.

Edison "will put whatever is necessary into these [first] schools in order to have a marketing ploy to have success," he predicted.

While the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have also been among the leading critics of privatization efforts, union leaders in Mount Clemens agreed to back the Edison Project after ensuring that teachers at the partnership school will be union members. King Academy teachers also get a 16 percent stipend in addition to their regular pay because of the longer school day and year.

About half the staff came from within the Mount Clemens district.

"They have a very motivated staff," said James F. Munroe, the executive director of Local 1 of the Michigan Education Association-National Education Association, which represents Mount Clemens teachers. "I think they are going to be successful because of the Mount Clemens teachers they have."

Down to Business

After the hoopla of opening day, the King Academy began to settle into a groove by Day 2. Edison's proponents stress that there are many attractive features of the design besides technology and a longer school year.

"I'm excited about teaching 15 children for reading, period," said Donna Gauthier, a "lead" teacher who will handle some administrative duties along with her 5th-grade class.

Under the Edison design, the school schedule is structured so that some children are at music, art, or physical-education classes while groups of 15 focus on reading for 90 minutes each day. That method comes from Success for All, a reading program developed at Johns Hopkins University.

In Michelle Waun's combined 3rd- and 4th-grade classroom, students paired up to read a Judy Blume book to each other. A more skilled reader helped her partner over difficult words.

From its inception, the Edison Project has argued that it will take all comers without excluding students from disadvantaged backgrounds or students with disabilities.

"We've got to show that we can have a cross-section of youngsters, expose them to the best practices in teaching and learning, and show student achievement," said Sandra Truitt Robinson, the project's site director in Mount Clemens, a largely working-class city of some 18,000 people.

School enrollment is about 48 percent white and 43 percent African-American. No racial breakdown was available for the remaining 9 percent. Thirty-eight percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, roughly in line with the districtwide figure.

Minor Glitches

At the end of Day 2, the King Academy's teachers meet Principal Katherine Zuzula in the media center to discuss how things are going. There have been a few glitches.

Some students, unaccustomed to an eight-hour school day or affected by the heat, dozed off in the afternoon.

Young children need more hand-holding with a schedule that resembles a middle or high school more than an elementary school. The teacher's lounge is still under construction.

Ms. Zuzula, who was an administrator in Mount Clemens for five years before becoming the King Academy principal, said the Edison design contained many elements that she has long believed were needed in schools, including accountability for teachers and administrators.

"We are aware that people will be watching us," she said. "But if we implement this the way it's intended to be, I don't see how we can fail."

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