Labor Problems Roil the Waters at Edison School in Dade

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While the Edison Project has shown promising evidence of academic achievement and will more than double the number of public schools it operates next year, one of the private company's current 12 sites has had far more problems than the others.

At Henry Reeves Elementary School in Miami, the first year of Edison Project control has been marked by labor difficulties, with many of the school's teachers complaining about being overworked. The design of the Edison model calls for a longer school day and year and a contract that accordingly gives teachers more money.

As the school year nears an end, the principal of Reeves Elementary in the Dade County district has requested a transfer. At least 22 of the 61 teachers at Reeves also have sought transfers back to a regular Dade County school, a far higher rate of attrition than Edison has experienced at any of its other schools.

"We have definitely had some personnel issues at the school," said Marilyn Neff, the deputy superintendent for elementary and secondary education in Dade County. "It's a new school building, and a lot of things have converged in the first year."

The Edison Project is the privately financed, for-profit education experiment launched by Christopher Whittle, the creator of the Channel One classroom television network.

The growth next fall from 12 to 25 Edison schools is "almost exactly what our plan calls for," Mr. Whittle said in an interview last week. Eighteen of those schools will be operated through partnerships or charter arrangements with school districts, while seven will be charter schools approved by state agencies.

First-year difficulties are to be expected, Mr. Whittle said about the situation in Dade County.

"You've got a completely new staff and a new group of children there," he said. "You're not going to get every decision right straight off the bat."

Contract Renegotiated

Edison's contract in Dade calls for students to attend school about an hour a day longer than those in other schools and about 30 days longer per year. The arrangement encompasses the Edison design, in which students begin studying Spanish in kindergarten and receive extended, small-group instruction in reading and mathematics.

Edison's difficulties in Dade County started last spring when teachers at existing schools showed no interest in having the private company take control. The Dade County school board had planned to turn over one existing school and one new school--Reeves Elementary--to Edison.

Reeves teachers were already getting paid as much as 13 percent more than other Dade teachers to cover the extra workload of the Edison plan, but they began to complain about their conditions last fall.

"I think that with some teachers the reality of the longer school year and longer school day didn't hit them until they got to the school," said Merri Mann, the director of the educational and professional issues department of the United Teachers of Dade, which represents the teachers.

"We went back to the table with Edison and they were very honorable," she added.

The contract was renegotiated to increase teacher pay an additional 4 percent this school year and 5 percent next year.

The Edison design calls for more professional treatment of teachers in return for increased accountability. In Edison schools, for example, teachers get time for classroom planning, telephones equipped with voice mail, and laptop computers.

Ms. Neff said that some of the 22 teachers who have requested transfers have cited long commutes or health concerns. The principal, Dyona McLean, cited health reasons in her transfer request. She could not be reached for comment last week.

Calls to several teachers at the school were not returned, but one teacher who plans to transfer, Zenith Gordillo, told the Miami Herald that she thought the Edison school would be "challenging, new and different. Now, I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole."

Ms. Neff said Dade officials can cancel the contract with 60 days' notice before the end of the fiscal year, but "there was no consideration of that this year."

Academic Gains

Meanwhile, Edison Project officials released data that give a more complete picture of the academic gains of students at its first four schools, which opened in the fall of 1995. Data released last fall from reading tests showed clear gains for Edison students in the two schools for which there were well-matched control groups. ("Cautious Analysis of Edison Test Data Urged," Oct. 16, 1996.)

Last week, Edison released its analysis of state- and district-level testing data from the four first-year schools.

Students have shown significant gains on such nationally normed assessments as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Metropolitan Achievement Test-7.

At Dodge-Edison Elementary School in Wichita, Kan., for example, 5th graders moved from the 46th to the 59th national percentile in reading from 1995 to 1996 on the Metropolitan Achievement Test. Fifth graders moved from the 35th to the 64th percentile in mathematics.

"The evidence we have so far is very encouraging," said John Chubb, Edison's curriculum director. "Student populations that began the project well below average are now at or above national averages. So we take that as an indication that the program is providing a solid foundation."

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