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interviews: sarah horsey
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Horsey is the principal at Edison's Montebello Elementary School in Baltimore, Md. She says that she was so excited about Edison's promise of "a world-class education for all students" that she came out of retirement to take the job at Montebello. In this interview she describes several factors that she believes set Edison apart from other schools, including the curriculum, the level of community involvement, and teacher training. "The message is clear," she says. "The kids are happy. ... We are making a difference." This interview was conducted on Oct. 1, 2002.

The bottom line is, in most instances, especially in Baltimore, we're getting the lowest performing schools, and we're making a difference.

... You'd got lots of awards as a school principal, but you were finished?

Finished. Complete. Over.

What happened?

Well, I heard about the state taking over three schools in Baltimore. Just out of curiosity, I wanted to know more about the company that was coming in to take over these schools, and I heard about Edison. One of the first things that I saw when I went on the Internet was their promise of a world-class education for all students, which I thought I had been doing for the last 30 or 34 years of my teaching experience, professional experience.

So that got your dander up?

Oh, it did. It really got my dander, my heart beating and everything up to find out more about this world-class education. The more I read, the more exciting it sounded. I questioned certain things; but yet, it sounded very promising. Some of the things that I liked [were] that it promised that every day, every single solitary day in elementary, teachers will come together for 40 to 45 minutes or more and talk and meet. Every day, [every] grade level. I couldn't believe it.

Then it mentioned the fact that the whole school will be divided into small units. That made sense to me. ... These units would meet on a regular basis. They would talk about children; they would talk about teaching strategies; they would talk about technology; they would talk about improving instruction; they would talk about benchmarks. They would talk and come together and talk about just children.

What else did Edison promise that intrigued you?

Oh, it provided various resources for the children and the traditional setting. Sometimes I had to make choices on the resources, and it turns out [Edison offered] art, music, phys ed. Every child would get Spanish. That was unheard of.

Edison said you can have all this?

Yes. I can have all of those things. I thought I was in heaven. ...

So did you go knock on Edison's door?

Yes. I knocked on everybody's door I could possibly knock on to find out about this world-class education. ...

So it was a marriage made in heaven? They liked you, you liked them?

I hope so. I liked them when I found out, not only that the technology -- I know in order for us to adequately prepare our children, we'd better make sure that they can handle computers -- and that I would have in my school a technology team that would not only train the children, but train the staff members, too; have professional development.

So it worked out. They hired you and you got Montebello. Tell me about Montebello. This is your third year. Tell me about Montebello when you took over.

July 1, when I walked into this building, I was really devastated. The physical appearance of the building-- It was not what I considered livable conditions. We had to come in, paint, clean, repair holes in the walls and that nature. Just the physical part.

Then I began to study the test results. Again, I was appalled to see how the tests for the last seven years began to go down. ...

Now, you're in your third year. You have 962 students. In that first year, how many students did you have?

When we first started the enrollment before September, [it] was about 450. But when parents began to come in -- we had [an] open door. We invited the community to come in and just see the changes. We had meetings with the parents. We talked to the parents. We told the parents our high expectations. We talked to the parents about the discipline in the building. ...

What did the parents say?

They liked it. We started with 450 in my first year. We went up to 750 students the first year. My second year went up to 999 students. ...

You have 962 children. Is there a waiting list?

Oh, yes. We have a waiting list at every grade level. However, we're only taking children who live in this community, who are zoned for this school. But we're finding that a lot of [people] who were [in] our zone were sending their children to private schools, to parochial schools. They live in this neighborhood, and they're now bringing their children back to public schools.

You've become a poster child for Edison. Literally.


Your picture is, you know. I mean, what does that feel like?

Well, it feels pretty good. I just hope I'm carrying the message.

What's the message?

The message is that Edison design and the Edison curriculum, their involvement at getting parents involved, their design and that ongoing staff development, allowed me to do in one year what it took me five years to do in a traditional setting. I think that's a message that I want to get across in my professional life that I was able to achieve.

You spent 30-something years working in public education. Now you're working for a for-profit company. Does that bother you?

No. No. I'll tell you what bothers me -- when children are suffering, when children are not able to compete. I like that where my parents are concerned, when they look at what their children are able to do, when their children can read and compete, when their children can do science experiments and articulate -- those are the concerns that these parents have.

So it wouldn't bother you if Chris Whittle makes a bundle of money?

No, it doesn't. My concern is about the children.

When I asked Chris Whittle and the people at Edison, I said, "I'd like to go see one of your best schools," Montebello's right on that list, the top of the list. Why aren't all the Edison schools like this one, [if] Edison models so great?

It takes some schools a little longer to get there, but they're getting there. It takes some schools a little longer to get there, because of -- I don't know, the demographics, because of the staffing or whatever, politics, whatever. But if they stay on track, and they continue to implement the Edison design, realize that curriculum, they're going to get there. If you look at the test results this year, you'll find they're going up and up and up, because they're sticking to the design, they're implementing the curriculum, and it's got to go up.

Is the issue with teacher unions a factor in your success? There's no tenure. You do not have to deal with a union. You can hire and fire. To what extent is that a factor in the success of this school?

The union never comes up, because of the simple fact that we're here to help teachers. ... I think what the difference is [is] teachers are given more help to be successful. 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, right in every Edison school to help those teachers who need help.

Ms. Horsey, if the Edison plan is really terrific, why couldn't you just do it without New York? Without Edison? Why not just do it? Could you do it?

I didn't have a design. I didn't have the curriculum. I didn't have all of those people I just named, who go out for training, become the experts right in my building. I didn't have to wait for someone outside my school who really doesn't know the needs and strengths of the school. I had everything I need right here to be successful. At least once a month, Edison curriculum coordinators contact New York. We get updated on the computer, on our common-- I mean, there's ongoing staff development that I have right here. We have teachers who are expert in certain areas now given the opportunity to share what they know to help other teachers by meeting every day -- every day -- at least 40 to 45 minutes

I noticed over [the] door is a sign that says "Four-to-One Praise."

Right. That's part of the Edison design. You will not find in an Edison school where you have teachers yelling at children or talking down to children. We operate on the premise that if we motivate our children and we praise our children four times to one time reprimand, that it gets less and less and less. You can find the good in every classroom, and we work on the good. We work on the class strengths so that we can help them in other areas of need.

Teachers, assistants, parents -- we even train our parents [that] even at home, praise your children. Build their self-esteem, and let them know exactly what you're praising them. It's not just "Oh, that's a good job." But you're doing a very good job doing the Montebello walk as you walk up and down the hallway. I'm telling the children, I'm calling their names, and I'm telling them why I'm praising them. That's an incentive for another child who may not be doing the Montebello walk. But now he knows that if he wants to get a praise, he wants to be rewarded, he'll do the Montebello walk. That this is training that all teachers at an Edison school get.

There's the Montebello walk, there's the four-to-one praise, there's the slogans, there's the inspirational outside stuff in the morning. Did it ever strike you that this is all kind of hokey? What does it have to do with learning?

It sets the tone for learning. It creates what Edison call [the] "learning environment." The environment is something that you can't measure on a test. But without that, I can guarantee you our children would not do very well on a standardized test. It is the environment of making children feel good about themselves. Teaching children self-control. Teaching children the Edison core values. Teaching children how to walk in an orderly manner and how to do things that make them very proud of themselves. That's why you walk into an Edison building, you'll find lots and lots of childrens' work being displayed -- because all of that works toward helping children feel good about themselves. Those are the ingredients that make a school successful.

I saw the grandparents' club. Tell me about parents and grandparents.

One of the parts of the Edison program is that I have a student support person, and her job is mostly to get parents involved. We sent surveys out to our parents to find out what are their needs. We found out in a couple of our surveys that we had a group of grandparents who had needs that they wanted to come together and meet. So we decided to have a grandparents' club.

Last week, we had a group of our young parents from the ages of 17 to 35 -- which excludes me right now -- but from 17 to 35 were coming together because they have problems, they have concerns. They're meeting once a week. We are trying to give our fathers, our males, to come together and to meet regularly, because they have concerns. All of this come from setting up a program of high expectations -- not just for children -- but high expectations for the community and getting involved in the community. Making a difference in the community.

Uniforms. That's a big part of Edison.

Yes, it is.

Why? Why uniforms?

Uniforms, I have found, help children stay focused. The concern is not on what I'm going to wear or the decision should I wear this or should I wear that. But they come together, focus on instruction. ...

Benchmarking. I was watching you and--

Great, great tool.

Tell me about that.

We are able to track our children on a monthly basis. Why benchmarks? Why track your children? Why test them on a monthly basis? Because it helps us to direct, re-direct, modify instruction.

So you could look and say "Well, let's see how John Merrow's doing on reading," or you could find out--

Even more specific than that. I can look and see how John is doing [on] main ideas, how's he doing and using context clues to for unknown words.

What do you do with that information?

Once we get that information, the children have to take ownership. The children map out their own success and the areas that they need to work on. Then the next thing, when the teachers meet, then they set up a plan of action. "OK, for the next two weeks or the next week, we're going to concentrate on main ideas, because 65 or so of my children were deficient in that area." Or "We're going to concentrate on adding and sub-adding, regrouping in the tens column, because I had 17 out of 25 children who didn't pass that part of the test." So it helps us to re-direct our instruction and teach for mastery.

How quickly do you get the information back?

We get it back almost at the same time they finish testing. Immediately.

So the teacher knows what to do next?

The teacher knows what to do. That's what all of these meetings, everyday meetings -- I keep going back to that - everyday meetings [are] all about. Looking at the data. Having the teachers to sit down and discuss, "What do we do next?" One teacher may go in one direction based on the data. Another teacher says, "I don't need to go over those skills. My children are now ready for this." So it's tracking the skills that the children need, providing instruction to meet their needs, and then reassessing them.

That's what learning is all about, and it's all done through that, though one of the ways is benchmark.

I was in a class of third graders reading. But there were a bunch of second graders in there.

As part of the SFA--

Success For All?

-- Success For All program, where you're not held back because of your grades. You're placed in classes according to your instructional level. So you might see second graders who are working with third graders. You might see third graders who are working with fourth-grade students.

Performance, not age?

Performance, not age. You're correct.

Tell me, what are houses?

In a traditional setting, you had a whole big school with all of these children. In an Edison school, the school is divided into houses. I have here two primary houses, which consist of teachers and children and grades pre-K through second grade. I have three intermediate houses from third to fifth. Then I have one junior high and that's grade six.

For each house is a lead teacher and a senior teacher. These houses meet [and] by the end of a year or two years, sometimes by the end of six months, everyone in that house knows every child in that house just about. So as the children go through the grade, the teachers are familiar with the children and the children are familiar with the teachers.

I meet with each lead teacher. Before, in a traditional setting, was Ms. Horsey and the academy director. In an Edison school, it's Ms. Horsey, my academy director, and the lead teachers from all of the houses. So we get together and I'm able to set the tone, or hear from them, give them some feedback. We just meet on every Thursday. We meet. We talk about children. We talk about benchmark. We talk about teaching strategies. We talk about what our next steps. It's about sharing the responsibilities that, instead of one or two academy directors, I have six or seven academy directors.

Are you working harder now than you used to?

I'm working smarter. I'm getting better results, and I'm inspiring others to take leadership. When you visited those classrooms and you saw teachers planning and talking about children and talking about strategies, I now can say that Ms. Horsey had been multiplied and duplicated and so forth and so on. It's a wonderful feeling, knowing that you're making a difference and empowering other people to share the same leadership vision as I have. ...

The [PE] teacher here told me that he teaches reading.

The PE teacher, art teacher, Spanish teacher -- everyone here teaches reading and writing.

Reading is the key?

Reading is the key. We have an incentive-based reading program where children compete with one another and the number of books read. It's not enough for children just to be able to read selections. We want to change the lives of these children, a lifetime commitment [of] having reading as a recreational activity. That's all part of the Edison design, to get the children to a level where they choose reading. They want to read. We have read-ins. We have children reading going up the steps -- we have to stop that because it's dangerous -- and reading coming down the steps. But to get them hooked on reading is our ultimate goal.

Fun seems to be OK.

Right. Fun through science experiments. Let me tell you, the first day of school, children went home the first Edison day, they went home saying to their parents, "We had a good time. We did this." Some of them had never completed a science experiment. But all of that is built in the curriculum. ...

So it is a new approach to learning, where children become active participants. You walk into any of these classrooms, you'll see science, you'll see social study, you'll see children measuring, you'll see children going to the maps, you'll see children actively involved in the whole learning process. And it's different. Yes.

Tell me about Chris Whittle. I know he's been here a couple of times.

Yes, he has.

What's your impression?

Oh, he's a motivator. The children listen intently to him. [He] is very sincere. He's tough. He wants to see results. He wants to see the implementation of a design. When he visits the classroom, he's looking at the SSA. He's looking at small group instruction. He's looking to see partner reading. He's very much aware of what we're supposed to be doing and when we're supposed to be doing, and he has my respect for that.

Does it bother you that he wants to make a bundle doing this?

No. No, it doesn't. I mean, I look at it -- everybody's making money. People selling books. People selling pencils. Anyone who comes here to fix anything, we have to pay up. Everybody's making money, and that's not important.

What is important: Are we producing achievers? Are we producing readers? Are we producing children who will be able to go and compete with the your grandchildren or compete with your grandchildren? Who will be able to take the same tests and score just as well as anybody else across the United States? That's what's important. All those other things, let somebody else worry about it.

Why do people feel so passionately about Chris Whittle? People think he's the devil.

We don't. If anything, he's a great leader. I mean, he has inspired just about everybody, all of the teachers and everyone. We're inspired. I share the same vision that he has, and that vision is to bring a world-class education to all. We're not leaving any child out.

Why such passionate intensity against him? You must have heard that.

Because people are not coming into these schools. They're not visiting the schools. You know, when you are making changes, you want to get it no matter what. You're going to get it. But all we ask is, come visit the school. Talk to the children. Talk to the parents. That's all. Before you make a judgment, come to the schools.

So when I ask why people think he's the devil, you're saying it's because they haven't visited the school?

It's a misinterpretation. Yes. A misunderstanding. They don't have the facts. Look at what Edison schools are doing throughout the state and throughout the country. You know what? The bottom line is, in most instances, especially in Baltimore, we're getting the lowest performing schools, and we're making a difference. These are schools that for years have been performing at the lowest of all the other schools, and yet, we're showing progress.

... Are you worried whether Edison will survive?

No. I'm not worried, because I see the results. The parents are not worried, because they see the results. The children are not worried, because they are achieving.

Chris Whittle's worried.

All I can say is that I have not noticed any difference in terms of materials, in terms of what we provide on a daily basis for our boys and girls. I think that's the most important thing right here is that our instruction is just as intense as it was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago. ...

Does this school turn a profit?

I don't know. I don't know. I hope it does, so that we can get more schools like this.

How do you do it? You get the same amount of money per pupil that everybody else gets.

That's right.

But you've got three PE teachers.


You've got math teachers. You've got Spanish, technology -- you get the same amount of money. How do you pay for all these extra things?

Excellent question. Because, remember, I told you that I don't have to go outside of my school for to get the continuous ongoing professional training. I have curriculum coordinators here. I have senior teachers. I have lead teachers. I have teachers who have been trained by Edison New York and their materials, and they have ongoing training, so that they're able to come here and empower the other teachers. The money stays right in the school.

In a traditional school setting, in a traditional school, to me there are huge overheads. Here, we can see, you can touch, you can feel where the money is being used. It's being used right here in the classroom. It's making a difference.

When you walk around in those classrooms and you see all of those materials around in those classrooms, it is an indication to me that that's where the money is. You know, we're getting the same as the other folks are getting in this state. It's what you do with that money, where the most of that money is spent, and the most of that money is spent in these schools. We have a lab. We have computers in every classroom. When I first came here, we didn't have that. We had computers in every classroom. We had teachers with laptops. Up-to-date telephones in every classroom.

This is where the money is. The money is in the classroom. The money is in the school. ...

Has Edison ever said to you, "You can't have that, because we need the money for our profit?"

Oh, yes. With me, I'm very extravagant. There's some things I'm glad he does say, or somebody says "No," because I would have the children, getting them in an aircraft going to the moon, almost, if I could. But no, the things within reason. You know? Things that are justifiable where it benefits our children, I've never been told no.

You're in public education for a long time. Compare Parents' Night of the typical public school with a Parents' Night here. Turnout?

I've been told -- and I have seen it happen in other schools -- that, "On Parent Night, we had more staff members than you have parents." And it was quite obvious; we had over 500 parents to actually sign their name. We had more parents, or just as many parents, inside the auditorium as we did outside. Because the message is clear: the kids are happy. We're communicating. We are making a difference. Not only with our children, but we're making a difference in the homes, in the families, in the community.

So they show up?

They show up and support our school. That's why I don't have to worry about Edison being here.

One more last question. You keep giving credit to the curriculum, to the model and so on and so forth. But I spent a couple of days following you around and you're a remarkable leader. Hypothesis: The reason for the success of Montebello is sitting right in front of me. Sarah Horsey, not Edison. I mean, without you, would this school be a success?

If they implement the Edison model, if they implement the design. Check the other two schools in Baltimore. I'm not there, and they're making progress. You can go to any other schools, a lot of the schools, and you'll see that if they truly implement the design and the curriculum itself is challenging. It's getting our children to think beyond, or outside of the box. Then Edison goes out and they hire good leaders. They hire good principals. Thank God I was one of them. But you know, there are a lot of good principals who are making the difference in Edison schools. We have two in Baltimore.

Edison's trying to succeed now in Philadelphia in 20 schools. The union is hostile. There are a lot of teachers who are hostile. Can Edison be successful in a hostile environment?

The challenge is great, but if they stay focused and if they can get their folks what Edison is all about -- it's providing a world-class education. It's giving children tools. Changing the lives of children. If they can get that across to those to everyone, I believe they stand a chance. But they've got to stay focused.

We have the vision. The vision is clear. And you know what? When I talk to more and more principals and more and more people in Philadelphia, they're winning them over.

I'll tell you who they're really going to win over. They're going to win over those parents, because the parents going to come to their school and they're going to see a big difference in their children. They're going to see their children walking like they're supposed to walk. They're going to see their children bring home assignments that they can do. They're going to see their children going to the library doing projects. They're going to win, because it's all about children -- giving all the children a world-class education. ...


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published july 3, 2003

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