New Arrangements: Dade County School Is Marketing Tool for E.A.I.

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MIAMI BEACH--At South Pointe Elementary School here, teachers and students have become used to the limelight.

On a recent day, one teacher was leading a lesson on multiplication for a dozen 3rd graders--watched by twice that number of visiting adults.

An 8-year-old boy handed out brochures and offered the visitors a tour. He pointed out the "extras'' in this classroom and others at South Pointe: a rocking chair, a telephone for the teacher, and at least two computers.

Also of interest, he noted, were the small groups of children at work with other instructors in the room as the teacher conducted her multiplication lesson.

South Pointe Elementary School is a showcase for Education Alternatives Inc., a private, for-profit Minneapolis-based company that aims to take over the management of public schools, operate them more efficiently and effectively, and turn a profit in the process. (See Education Week, Oct. 14, 1992.)

Education Alternatives does not manage the school here, but its five-year contract with the Dade County school district to develop South Pointe's educational program and train its teachers marked the firm's first move into the public school market.

And a lot has been staked on the success of this endeavor.

Officials of E.A.I., noting that South Pointe's enrollment is heavily poor and minority, hope to use the school to demonstrate that the firm can effectively educate children almost anywhere.

Officials of the school system and its teachers' union, meanwhile, pointing to the substantial extra funds that E.A.I. and private donors have poured into South Pointe, are betting that the school's success will show what other public schools could accomplish with more money.

Having opened in the fall of 1991, the school is in full operation this year, and it frequently draws visitors from districts that are interested in contracting with E.A.I. to manage public schools, as the Baltimore system did last year.

"I think we have to say, so far, it is doing beautifully,'' Merri Mann, the assistant director of the department of professionalization of the United Teachers of Dade, said of the South Pointe program.

"But,'' she cautioned, "time will tell.''

Diverse Enrollment

One of the first visitors to South Pointe Elementary every day is a homeless man who comes by and, in exchange for a free breakfast from the school cafeteria, clears the grounds of beer bottles left by patrons of a nearby bar.

The school sits in a section of south Miami Beach where beachfront hotels give way to scattered crack houses and rows of crowded, low-rent apartment buildings.

Not all of South Pointe's more than 700 students come from the immediate neighborhood and reflect its socioeconomic conditions. About 5 percent are from relatively well-off families that live on the islands of Biscayne Bay and were drawn back into the public school system by South Pointe's intensely student-centered educational offerings.

A much larger portion of the enrollment, however, hails from the islands of the Caribbean or from Central America. About 80 percent of the students qualify for need-based federal lunch subsidies. The enrollment is 65 percent Hispanic, 23 percent white, and 11 percent black.

Before the opening of South Pointe Elementary School, students in this area of the district were crowded into an elementary school complex that served 1,600 children, only about 2 percent of whom were white. (See Education Week, June 6, 1990.)

Three-Way Partnership

As part of its efforts to improve education and deal with chronic overcrowding, the Dade County district in 1989 solicited innovative proposals for the design and operation of 49 new schools.

Education Alternatives proposed transferring to Dade's planned South Pointe school the instructional methods that it had developed for its private schools in Eagan, Minn., and Paradise Valley, Ariz. The program is trademarked as "Tesseract,'' after a term used in a popular children's book.

In the course of subsequent contract negotiations, the district pledged to allot South Pointe the same level of funding given to other Dade County schools, an amount that currently comes to about $5,000 per student. The district also agreed to waive some of its regulations dealing with purchases, labor, and other areas of operation.

It also provided a new school building that Superintendent Octavio Visiedo describes as "literally built to order.''

For its part, Education Alternatives agreed to find outside sources of funding to cover its $22,900-per-month consulting fee and other additional costs of implementing a Tesseract program at South Pointe, estimated at a total of $2.4 million over five years.

The United Teachers of Dade was central to the agreement as well. The union cleared the way for E.A.I. by waiving provisions of its contract dealing with teacher training and associate teachers.

"When we entered this partnership with the district and with E.A.I.,'' Ms. Mann of the U.T.D. said, "we did so hoping it would work and that, if it did, it would send a strong message ... that schools can improve if you are willing to provide the funding that will enable them to do so.''

Quick To Innovate

As a private company, Education Alternatives has been able to move quickly in researching and introducing pedagogical changes.

Kathryn A. Thomas, the firm's vice president in charge of staff development, said it can take E.A.I. only a few months to test or develop new products or methods at its private schools in Minnesota and Arizona, try them out in the urban public school setting of South Pointe, and then bring them to the nine schools it manages in Baltimore.

Frequently, this means using products developed by other firms. "It is not our intent to reinvent the wheel if there is something that is good out there,'' Ms. Thomas said.

"What E.A.I. has done is take the best practices and put them in one place,'' said Patricia A. Parham, South Pointe's principal.

Boosters of South Pointe Elementary stress the abundance of instructional and support materials and equipment available at the school--resources they say most other Dade County schools cannot match.

Teachers here have access to extensive research and teaching materials, as well as to their own work areas. Each such area is equipped with a telephone--a luxury for most classroom teachers--and a computer linked to more than 120 others.

The students also have easy access to computers, as well as to a media center with more than 15,000 books and a well-equipped music room.

As of last month, E.A.I. officials said they had raised about $1.5 million in private support for South Pointe, helped by grants from local philanthropies as well as donations of materials.

'A Cut Above'

South Pointe's biggest advantage, however, may be its ability to carefully select its teachers and provide them with extensive, ongoing professional development.

Noting that the school received about 300 applications for about 30 teaching positions when it first opened, Ms. Parham said, "Any time you can select your teachers, you are going to have a school that is a cut above.''

South Pointe maintains a 15-to-1 or better ratio of instructional staff members to students. As of last month, it was staffed with 46 teachers, 15 associate teachers from the University of Miami's graduate school, eight associate teachers who also worked at South Pointe last year, and about a dozen undergraduate interns from local colleges.

In exchange for a U.T.D. waiver of a contract provision limiting after-school teacher meetings or training sessions to two a month, South Pointe holds such meetings far more frequently, but pays teachers who attend for their time.

One recent Tuesday afternoon, Mike M. Erdman, a staff-development consultant for E.A.I., led a session with about 14 members of the school staff on teaching new vocabulary in ways that address students' individual learning styles.

The teachers, in turn, offered feedback on the effectiveness of the Tesseract methods they had tried.

"No matter what your profession, if you want to be really good at what you do, you have to put in the extra time,'' Tami L. Hahn, a teacher of the 4th and 5th grades, said in explaining the value of such training.

A survey of all of South Pointe's teachers carried out by E.A.I. a year ago found that more than 95 percent liked teaching at the school. And nearly 70 percent responded affirmatively to the statement, "I teach differently than I taught before.''

Training Parents

Education Alternatives and South Pointe administrators provide similar, but simplified, training sessions in English and Spanish to the parents of the school's students.

During one such session, for example, Mr. Erdman and a translator taught parents how to read to their children, and encouraged them to tell teachers if they think the homework given to their children is too easy or too difficult.

When an outside marketing firm surveyed South Pointe parents in February 1992, they overwhelmingly said they were satisfied with the school and felt their children were happy and well-treated there.

Last year, E.A.I. had a consultant dispatched to provide training at the school on a daily basis. This school year, the firm's training plans were disrupted by Hurricane Andrew, but it has sent staff members to visit the school periodically, and it had a team of three or four consultants at the school throughout March to provide sessions for teachers and parents.

The school's lead teacher, who functions much like an assistant principal, is responsible for training on a daily basis.

Communal Start to the Day

With its extra staff, resources, and training programs, South Pointe Elementary attempts to create a learning environment that is exceptionally positive and student-centered.

The school day here begins at 8:30 with a 15-minute "community meeting,'' during which children of all ages gather in groups of about 150 each to hear teachers read announcements and to participate in group activities.

On a morning last month, 5th and 6th graders led their schoolmates through a song about peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. They were followed in the front of the room by one kindergartner who read a page from a Dr. Seuss book.

"We purposely set up the morning as a real calming time,'' Ms. Thomas of EŸAŸIŸ said, noting that some South Pointe students come to school from abusive family settings.

When "exchange'' time arrives--without a bell, to avoid startling anyone--the students enter classrooms where tables are arranged flexibly and children are free to stand, sit, or lie on the floor.

"If a kid feels a need to move, he can do it; it is acceptable,'' said Mary E. Prieto, the lead teacher at the school, who said that giving children such freedom cuts down on disciplinary problems.

Instead of issuing report cards with numerical or letter grades, the teachers use their computers to generate detailed five-page progress reports that they print out and share with parents four times a year.

"When you are holding parent conferences, it is demanding,'' Carolee Thompson, a 1st-grade teacher, said.

"But,'' she added, "we are not constantly grading students and doing some of the routine, traditional paperwork.''

The school also administers a test to students every two or three years to determine their individual learning styles. Cindy J. Lasky, a teacher who administers the tests, said the procedure enables teachers to note the learning style of a given child and adapt to it in providing remediation or introducing a new concept.

In her previous school, where she taught 42 children in one 6th-grade classroom, adapting instruction to students' individual learning styles "would have been impossible, whether I wanted to or not,'' Ms. Lasky said.

Unexpected Influx

The South Pointe endeavor has not been without setbacks, however.

The destruction of homes by Hurricane Andrew last year has redistributed much of Dade County's population, causing the school's enrollment to swell significantly over the 550 students that it was built for and that E.A.I. had anticipated and budgeted for.

Education Alternatives has adjusted to the new 700-student enrollment by shopping around more to save costs and by having two portable classrooms built outside the school.

"I think probably another hundred students would really max this school out,'' Ms. Thomas said.

Education Alternatives also has watched some instructional methods that worked well in Minnesota, such as an innovative spelling program, fall flat when tried with the far more disadvantaged and linguistically diverse students of South Pointe.

Even with instructional methods that are perceived as successful, it may take years to document their impact on student's standardized-test scores.

Resources and Freedom

Even if the South Pointe experiment is judged a success over the long haul, educators here see little reason why other public schools, given the same resources and freedom, cannot achieve the same success on their own.

And some here wonder whether E.A.I. will experience similar success in arrangements such as the one it has in Baltimore, where it must manage schools on their regular budgets, using existing buildings and staffs.

Superintendent Visiedo had nothing but praise for the Tesseract philosophy and the teacher training that E.A.I. provides. Yet, he said, he has rejected E.A.I.'s offers to manage other Dade County schools and has discouraged other districts approached by the company, including the nearby Palm Beach County district, from undertaking arrangements more extensive than that at South Pointe.

"I can do as good a job, or a better job, at running schools if I am free of all the regulations that I have to comply with,'' Mr. Visiedo asserted.

But, he said, "this is the public sector, and we have a whole different, more rigorous set of standards than people do in the private sector.''

Vol. 12, Issue 29

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