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Edison Posts High Marks in Inaugural Year

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Wichita, Kan.

Outside Dodge-Edison Elementary School, the afternoon temperature is approaching 90 degrees.

Children in most other schools here have gone home for the day, but Rob Alderson's 3rd and 4th graders have more than an hour to go. They are just starting their math lesson.

"I know the temperature has changed, and it's the middle of May, and you are used to getting out of school in two weeks," Mr. Alderson tells the restless students, who began their school day at 8:30 a.m. and won't finish until 4:30 p.m. "But we're here seven more weeks."

Groans all around.

"You better get used to that," he adds.

Though it may not seem like it to Mr. Alderson's students, the Edison Project's four public schools are moving into the final stretch of their inaugural year. The longer school day and academic year are just one hallmark of the for-profit company's education design, which is being tested for the first time.

The New York City-based Edison Project is teaching about 2,000 students in Boston; Mount Clemens, Mich.; Sherman, Texas; and here at Wichita's Dodge-Edison Elementary.

In what has been a tumultuous school year for the nascent business of private management of public education, the Edison Project appears to be off to a relatively smooth start.

In all four of its sites, local authorities give the company high marks and have agreed to expand its involvement to include middle grades this fall.

Its competitors haven't fared so well. Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. lost major contracts to run schools in Baltimore and Hartford, Conn.

And Alternative Public Schools Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., has encountered fierce opposition from teachers' unions to its operation of an elementary school in Wilkinsburg, Pa.

Working to Exhaustion

In addition to the expansion in cities where it already has contracts, Edison is scheduled to open this fall, either through charter or partnership arrangements, one elementary school each in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Dade County, Fla.; Lansing, Mich.; and Worcester, Mass.

That will bring to a dozen the number of public schools involved with the Edison Project, which originally was conceived by its founder, media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, as a chain of private schools. Mr. Whittle and his associates rethought that plan after they ran into trouble attracting financing.

"We had a very ambitious and comprehensive vision of what a new school would look like and we've actually done it," Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the company's president, said this month. "We're very pleased and delighted that all four of our partners have asked us to do middle schools."

Not that Edison's first year has been problem-free.

Its promise of providing a computer in every child's home took a while to fulfill. Some families waited most of the school year to receive their machines.

The early start last August left some of its teachers ill-prepared for the complex Edison curriculum. And the extended school day--though it comes with extra pay--requires a lot of extra effort.

"Our teachers like the program but they are very tired," said Joan Buckley, the head of a task force on school privatization for the American Federation of Teachers, whose local affiliate represents teachers at the Wichita school.

And Edison's complicated school schedules, which allow for extended reading and mathematics instruction while also providing regular instruction in Spanish, music, art, and physical education, needed major adjustments to deal with a larger-than-expected number of children.

"Edison has this theoretical schedule and it just didn't work" at the start of the year, said Larrie Reynolds, the principal of Dodge-Edison. He proposed an adjusted schedule that has worked better for the school's 600 students, who are divided into multigrade "houses."

Fine-Tuning

The programs at other Edison schools needed similar tinkering.

The Boston Renaissance Charter School serves more than 650 students in a renovated downtown office building. Administrators there quickly realized that the longer school day forced school buses right into the city's notorious rush-hour traffic.

Barbara Wager, the head of Boston Renaissance, said the school adjusted its schedules within a few weeks of its opening in September.

A more challenging issue, she said, was the unexpected number of special education students who enrolled--about 15 percent. "We have had our share of challenges in terms of hiring all the experts we need to have to meet the needs of different kids," she said.

Mr. Schmidt said the Edison Project expected a "fair share" of students with disabilities and other special needs. "But in Boston we got quite a bit more than what was expected."

In the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens, there is a waiting list of more than 300 students for the Edison-run Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. Next year, the 6,000-student district will create an Edison "junior academy" within the district's lone middle school that will serve 300 students.

In the 5,800-student Sherman district in northeast Texas, officials at Washington Elementary School had to add portable classrooms to handle the 480 students who enrolled.

Like Mount Clemens, the Sherman district is adding an "Edison house" next year to an intermediate school. It will serve 300 5th and 6th graders, said Superintendent Robert Denton. "I can't seem to find an unhappy Edison parent," he said.

In 'Heaven'

In its blue-collar Wichita neighborhood, the K-5 Dodge-Edison Elementary School has been transformed from a drab, rundown building into a bright, energized magnet school full of the latest in education technology. (See Education Week, Nov. 16, 1994.)

Although it took until well into the school year, virtually every home of a 1st- through 5th-grade student now has an Apple Macintosh computer and a modem. Students and their parents can tap into the Edison Project's computer network, called the Common.

Teachers have laptop computers and telephones in their classrooms, and the school has an array of digital cameras, computer scanners, and printers for multimedia projects.

"This is technical heaven," said Michelle Edwards, the technology teacher at Dodge-Edison. Teachers there post newsletters and homework assignments that parents can access from home.

In a recent on-line newsletter, a teacher asked parents to review with their children lessons about time, counting, and money for an upcoming test.

Since all this technology was new to many parents, the school created a "parent university" to provide lessons about software and other topics.

"I've been taking the classes, and I'm learning a lot," said Patty Kohler, who has a 3rd-grade daughter and a son in kindergarten at Dodge-Edison.

"My daughter got an assignment to do a [computer] slide show, and I said, 'I don't have the slightest idea of what you're talking about,'" she recalled. But now she can turn out multimedia projects of her own.

Kelley Nelson, a 5th-grade teacher, said she has been somewhat disappointed that many parents do not routinely check the computer network for homework assignments and newsletters.

"A lot of them just don't have time," she said. "They say they are too tired to turn on the computer."

However, Sherry Bawl, the mother of three students at the school, said the computer is a great way to check up on their assignments--if, that is, she can wrest it away from them. "When you have three kids, you have to fight them to get on the computer first," she said.

Mr. Alderson is looking forward to June, when, in a concession to the Kansas heat, the school will shorten the day to 3 p.m. and give his 3rd and 4th graders electives and fun events to do in the afternoons.

Next year, he will leave Dodge-Edison to become a lead teacher at the Edison junior academy across town. He has had numerous visitors to his classroom, from Colorado educators deciding whether to hire Edison to Mr. Whittle, the project's founder.

"I can't emphasize enough how professionally the teachers have been treated," Mr. Alderson said.

Union Watchdogs

As for academic results, most educators at the Edison schools believe their students have made progress, but the first hard evidence won't be available until the results of standardized tests come in, starting in the fall.

"We should have definitive statistics in two to three years," said Jerome Williams, the president of the Wichita school board.

But he added that there are other ways than test scores of measuring success. "In a time when we are struggling so desperately to get parents involved, they seem to have done a pretty good job of that."

The two national teachers' unions are following the experiment closely. Despite their general anti-privatization rhetoric, neither has declared war on the Edison Project.

The AFT bitterly fought Education Alternatives Inc. in Baltimore and Hartford, and the National Education Association has forcefully opposed Alternative Public Schools in Wilkinsburg.

Officials of the two unions met last month in Denver with teachers from three of the four Edison sites to gather information and impressions about the first year.

"Edison has learned it has to cooperate with unions in situations where there are unions," said Howard Nelson, the senior associate director of the aft's research department. "That's something we have to respect."

Mr. Schmidt said the Edison Project will generate revenue of about $12 million this year, though any profit is likely years away.

The company is satisfied to be expanding to 12 schools next year, he added. "Just about everything we've seen has made us believe in the fundamental correctness of our school design and our strategy."

Expansion Plans for 1996-97

The Edison Project is serving about 2,000 students this year in four elementary schools. Next year, the project will expand to a total of 12 schools, including the addition of four middle schools in its existing sites. Edison is currently involved in the following districts:

Boston

The Boston Renaissance Charter School serves about 650 K-5 students in a renovated downtown office building. Edison is a partner in a group that was granted a charter by state officials to operate outside the regular school system. Next year, the school will add a "junior academy"--a middle school within the existing school that will serve between 230 and 345 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.

Mount Clemens, Mich.

In this small city near Detroit, Edison operates the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a K-5 school serving 490 students. Next year, the district will add an Edison junior academy as one "house" in its lone middle school.

Sherman, Texas

In another partnership arrangement, Edison operates Washington Elementary School, which has 480 K-4 students. Next year, the district will create a 5th- and 6th-grade Edison "house" at its intermediate school.

Wichita, Kan.

The Dodge-Edison Elementary School serves about 600 students in kindergarten through grade 5. Next year, Edison will take over one of the district's middle schools.

In addition to the new middle schools or houses within schools at its current sites, Edison will open or take over four schools next year in these districts:

Colorado Springs, Colo.

The district will turn over one elementary school to Edison.

Dade County, Fla.

The district announced last fall that Edison would take over two schools next year--one existing school and one new one. However, administrators and Edison ran into resistance in getting teachers to approve turning over an existing school, so Edison will operate only a new school.

Lansing, Mich.

Edison will open a charter school.

Worcester, Mass.

Edison will open a charter school.

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