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inside edison's schools
Here are the stories of two districts, both featured in "Public Schools Inc.," that have had very different experiences after hiring Edison Schools, along with FRONTLINE's interviews with Wichita superintendent Winston Brooks and Baltimore principal Sarah Horsey.

Wichita, Kan.

Jean Schodorf, a member of Wichita's school board, describes the 1995 opening of Dodge Elementary, one of the first Edison-run schools, as "spectacular." "It had a red carpet," she recalls. "All the parents were there, and all the New York folks from the Edison company."

Initial reports indicated that parents, teachers, administrators and Edison investors alike were pleased with Edison's first-year performance. "The school changed, the students wore uniforms," says Schodorf. "There was a pride there. They learned how to use computers and parents did too. People moved into the district, into the area, the school district, so that they could go to Dodge. It was full. It was bursting at the seams."

The following year, the school board signed a contract for Edison to operate Jardine Middle School, and in 1997, the two parties agreed to another contract for Edison to operate two additional elementary schools -- Ingalls and Isely. Wichita also decided, however, to perform an experiment -- the district set up "look-alike" schools that were similar to Edison's model, but not run by the company.

After several years, Wichita soured on Edison's performance at Ingalls and Isely as compared to the earlier schools. "We saw declining enrollments," recalls Wichita school superintendent Winston Brooks, who was hired after Edison already had been hired by the district. "At one time, Ingalls had at least had nearly 700 students ... and it was losing about 100 students a year. Test performance was awful." There were additional complaints about discipline problems and high teacher turnover in the schools, and administrators at Ingalls were removed after their involvement in a cheating scandal.

According to the district, Edison did not respond well to the problems at the two schools. Schodorf believes it was because Edison was spending too much time trying to recruit new business. "We had this problem, and then we would read or hear about the company then trying to recruit other districts, and that's when we began thinking that, you know, there was a money problem, and that the company was really interested in getting new districts, getting the next million, and not taking care of their own," she says.

Edison stands by its work in Wichita. However, in January 2002, the school board voted to revoke the company's contract to run Ingalls and Isely. Edison founder and CEO Chris Whittle points to administrative changes as one of the reasons Edison was asked to leave. "Is the superintendent that brought us in the same as exists there now?" he asks. "No. ... Regimes change. Superintendents leave. Someone new comes in, someone new's got a different point of view. It's part of what we struggle with, and it's the politics of that we have to live with every day."

The company still had two schools to run in Wichita, but those soon came into question as well. Facing state education funding cuts, officials compared Edison's performance with those of the Edison "look-alike" schools. They found the results to be very interesting. "We learned that we can do it just as well, [and] cheaper," says Brooks. "When you look at the growth that our district schools have made, compared to the growth that Edison schools have made, [the growth in Edison's schools is] not any more significant."

In November 2002, the Wichita school board voted to end Edison's management of Dodge and Jardine. Although Brooks acknowledges that Wichita schools benefited from the competition and from many of Edison's programs, he maintains that the district can save half a million dollars annually by running the schools itself.

Whittle responds, "If you say we just want to try this in a copycat way -- and by the way I think you can improve the school -- do I think over time, the results are going to be the same? No, I don't." But he admits that Wichita's decision does pose worries for the future. "I had one investor call me and he said, 'Chris, I was with you all along until you were fired in a city where you did great work. And I just went, if that can happen, then what's the future?'"

º Read FRONTLINE's full interview with Wichita school superintendent Winston Brooks.

 

Baltimore, Md.

In February 2000, the state of Maryland announced that it was taking control of the three lowest-performing public schools in Baltimore. Edison was hired several months later to run the schools, in which less than 10 percent of students had passed the state's basic skills test.

Montebello Elementary had been struggling for years, but Edison got off to a fast start and hired Sarah Horsey, who had retired after turning around another struggling Baltimore public school, to be Montebello's principal. The state gave the company complete control over hiring staff. Edison signed teachers to one-year contracts, and although the teachers earned more, they worked a longer school day and longer school year. The state paid for painting and other repairs to the school building. As in other Edison schools, classes in art, music, physical education and Spanish were offered several times per week and Montebello also offered classes in sign language and drama.

Montebello has proven to be one of Edison's top success stories -- its test scores have continually improved and this year the state of Maryland named it as a "Blue Ribbon" school, an award given to schools for exceptional leadership and student achievement. Parents were so pleased with the progress at Montebello and the other two Edison schools in Baltimore that after Edison's first year, more than 700 parents signed a petition to expand the schools to add sixth grade. The Baltimore Sun signaled this achievement in an editorial: "If [Edison] could get 700 [parents] to sign a petition, imagine how many they have reading to children, helping with homework or just keeping tabs on their children's school careers."

One major factor in Montebello's success, according to Horsey, is the teacher training Edison provides. "Teachers are given more help to be successful," she says. "You have the lead teacher, who provides assistance. You have the senior teacher right here in the building, who provides assistance. You have curriculum coordinators. These are people who are trained in reading, math and science. All are here, right in the school ... to help those teachers who need help."

Horsey notes these efforts have shown results that are apparent in Montebello's classrooms. "You walk into any of these classrooms, you'll see science, you'll see social studies, you'll see children measuring, you'll see children going to the maps, you'll see children actively involved in the whole learning process," she says.

According to Edison founder and CEO Chris Whittle, Montebello has proven profitable for the company. "Something we've learned is that the better a school is academically, it tends to be better financially," he says. "It's counterintuitive. But the reason is, if you have good leadership in a school, they tend to be good in multiple ways, meaning, they're good recruiters of talent, they're good in terms of raising student achievement, and they're good managers of budgets. ... So generally, we see our best schools are good in multiple ways."

º Read FRONTLINE's full interview with Montebello Elementary's principal Sarah Horsey.

 

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published july 3, 2003

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