School & District Management

Edison Alliance Hired to Help Struggling S.C. District

By Alan Richard — August 11, 2004 2 min read
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South Carolina has hired Edison Schools Inc. to try to improve student achievement in the struggling Allendale County school system, a poor rural district entering its fifth school year under state control.

The for-profit company’s effort in the rural South represents Edison’s newest interest: helping states deal with the many schools listed as needing improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

It’s also part of Edison’s launch of its newest product: Edison Alliance. Officials call the work a partnership with local and state school officials, rather than the complete school-management contracts usually associated with the New York City- based company.

“We’re hired to raise student achievement, and we’re fired if we don’t,” said Jeff McCoy, Edison’s senior vice president of development.

State officials hope the move finally will bring improvement to the schools in Allendale County, located about 60 miles southeast of Columbia, S.C., along the Georgia border. The 1,800-student system has been plagued by low test scores and leadership problems for decades. (“Starting from Scratch,” Oct. 13, 1999.)

Superintendent Paula Harris, who was appointed by the state to run the district in early 2003, said she was skeptical of the Edison plan until she visited an improving school in Atlanta that was using the Edison techniques.

“I became an instant convert,” said Ms. Harris, whose district serves youngsters mostly from poor families.

More than 100 teachers from Allendale County—at least two-thirds of the district’s teaching staff—have undergone initial training with Edison this summer, with more training to come.

“They’ve gotten off to a good start,” Leonard McIntyre, an assistant state superintendent in South Carolina who oversees the Allendale work, said of Edison. “A lot of it is getting people inspired and motivated and on board, and that is exactly what is needed to support the initiative.”

Price of Improvement

The state is paying for the Allendale County contract, which was signed this summer after South Carolina lawmakers approved a measure that allows the district to shift state money for academic coaches to the Edison work. Edison will provide its own full-time academic coaches.

South Carolina is paying Edison a start-up fee of $400,200, plus $327,000 annually per school. The annual fee rises 3 percent each year under the contract, which can last up to five years if Edison meets test-score goals.

Edison is helping Allendale align its teaching and curriculum with state academic standards. Those standards link with the state tests. Ms. Harris said her district does not have the capacity to complete that work on its own.

Also, teachers are being trained in classroom management, and in using Edison’s technology to check students’ academic progress monthly and learn details immediately about their academic strengths and weaknesses, she said.

Edison faces an uphill battle in raising student achievement.

The district’s scores on state tests are rising, but not enough to make the yearly progress required under the No Child Left Behind Act. Fifty-seven percent of its 4th graders scored at or above the basic level on state tests last year, compared with 19 percent in 1999.

“It’s the lowest of the low” in test scores and poverty, Edison’s Mr. McCoy said of the district.

Edison Alliance could spread nationally as states look for help with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, Mr. McCoy said.

Mr. McIntyre said South Carolina may use the strategy in other struggling schools. “We expect other districts to engage in a similar partnership,” he said.

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