Starting in 1995, Edison Project To Manage Two Wichita Schools

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The Wichita, Kan., school board voted unanimously last week to allow the Edison Project to run two of its elementary schools beginning in 1995.

The agreement marks the second time the for-profit venture formed by the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle received government approval to run public schools.

In March, the state of Massachussetts awarded the Edison Project the right to run three charter schools, also beginning in 1995.

Meanwhile, corporate involvement in the management of public schools got a boost this month with an agreement between the Walt Disney Company and the Osceola County, Fla., school board.

Under the agreement, the entertainment behemoth will build and help run a public school at Celebration, its planned 3,500-acre residential development to be built near the Walt Disney World entertainment complex near Orlando.

A Letter of Intent

The Wichita school board's 7-to-0 vote in favor of the Edison Project is the first agreement between the private venture and a school district. Edison Project officials are traveling across the country seeking to win contracts to run public schools or the right to run publicly funded charter schools.

The Edison Project has signed a letter of intent with the Wichita district to put its school design and management system into effect at two as-yet-undetermined elementary schools beginning in fall 1995.

There are also informal plans for an Edison middle school, which would open in fall 1996. The Edison philosophy stresses a longer school day, more rigorous academics, and a heavy use of technology. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

"I was looking for something like this to give us a model for what might happen in public education,'' said Larry R. Vaughan, the superintendent of the Wichita district, which has an enrollment of 49,000 students.

The two parties still must work out the details of the contract, but officials said the two elementary schools could serve as many as 1,000 students.

Concerns for Teachers

Barb Travis, the president of the National Education Association affiliate in Wichita, said the teachers' union was not opposed to the contract but has concerns about the role of teachers in the Edison schools.

She wondered whether teachers now working in Wichita would be hired for the Edison schools, how they would handle grievances, and what would happen to them if they wanted to transfer back to the regular system.

"Who will they be bringing in, and do they understand our community?'' she asked about the Edison Project.

But Mr. Vaughn said there would be a "safety net for those teachers who want to take a chance on this experiment.''

"I have guaranteed we will take those people back,'' he added.

Edison Project officials said that they are working with several other school districts and that agreements are possible in the next few weeks or months. Milwaukee officials are considering the project to run some schools after having ruled out another private company, Education Alternatives Inc.

Celebration School

The Osceola County school district's partnership with Disney has been under discussion for several years, said Chris Colombo, the superintendent.

The Disney Development Company is building a planned, mixed-use development south of Walt Disney World that will include a town center, office and retail space, and more than 8,000 residential units.

The development is scheduled to open in 1996. It also includes plans for the Celebration Learning Center, which would consist of a pre-K-through-12th-grade public school for 1,400 students and a "Teaching Academy'' offering professional-development sessions for educators from across Florida and the nation, officials said.

Disney is donating 26 acres for the learning center and is providing $4 million to $6 million to help build it.

The district will provide $15.5 million to build the school and will own it, but the school board will be advised by a panel made up of one representative each from the district, Disney, and Stetson University in DeLand, Fla.

"This is the most exciting project I have seen in my 30-some years in education,'' Mr. Colombo said. "Can you envision teaching physics in the animatronics lab at Disney World?''

The Osceola County school board approved the agreement 4 to 1 on May 5, and the learning center is scheduled to open in 1996.

The school is slated to have laboratories for film, animation, and environmental studies.

Planners envision that the teaching academy will attract nationally prominent educators to address young teachers.

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