Reading, Writing, and Revenue

The Edison Project's formula is simple: Take a Minneapolis public school, add some entrepreneurial savvy, and watch the profits roll in. Trouble is, it doesn't add up.

The longer Bryan Cichy thinks back, the more absurd it all seems. A little over a year ago he was sitting in the VIP lounge at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City Hotel overlooking the Washington, D.C., skyline. His room ran well over $250 a night, a tab that didn't even include the bill for the seemingly endless succession of catered lunches and dinner buffets. And none of it was costing him a dime.

Just the thought of it made him smile--he was on a business trip. During his entire seven years as a teacher in Minnesota, he had never been sent as far as Iowa. Not that it bothered him much; Cichy knew public school systems had no good reason to send him anywhere. But that was the whole point: He wouldn't be working for a regular public school anymore.

He had just accepted a job to teach Spanish at a brand-new Minneapolis school run by the Edison Project, the nation's largest for-profit public-school management company and the brainchild of flamboyant entrepreneur Chris Whittle. The company had flown him out East for a training seminar with foreign-language teachers from Edison schools around the nation. He knew it was silly, but as he sampled the hors d'oeuvres laid out across the top of a grand piano, he likened himself to the hazy caricature of a hard-talking businessman he'd picked up from the movies. "After all," he said to himself, "isn't the education of our youth important business?"

Jeff Tolbert

But Cichy was excited about a lot more than five-star hotels. For years he had been a vocal supporter of education reform, serving on the school board in the western Minnesota town of Breckenridge and working on a state-sponsored effort called the Minnesota Educational Effectiveness Program. But no matter how long the committee meetings, how eloquent the reports, he'd never felt anywhere close to true reform. The system was just too bureaucratic, he believed, its failing institutions incapable of innovation.

The Edison Project promised to change that. Before signing his contract, Cichy had researched the company and found himself wowed by the "Edison School Design" the firm had spent three years and more than $45 million to create. The plan called for stretching both the school day and year, giving students the equivalent of an extra four years of instruction during the course of a K-12 education. Teachers would be paid ten percent more than their mainstream public-school counterparts and would implement a topnotch curriculum that, among other things, required all students to be fluent in Spanish by sixth grade. The company would fill classrooms with TV sets, VCRs, camcorders, and computers; every teacher would get a laptop and, after the second grade, students would get their own computer to take home. There would be ongoing training and a performance-based career ladder, with experienced "lead teachers" heading teams of less seasoned educators.

And here was the best part: All of this would be provided not in an exclusive private-school setting, but in a public institution, operated by Edison under contract with the Minneapolis school district, using the same tax dollars--and the same open admissions policy--as any other public school. In light of all this, Cichy didn't care that Edison was a for-profit company: Maybe, he reasoned, big business was exactly what education needed.

A year later, Cichy wonders how he could have been so naive. After teaching at Edison for nearly seven months, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and placed on medical leave. The vaunted Edison Design, he charges, turned out to be all smoke and mirrors: "Mathematically they just couldn't deliver what they promised," he avers. "The school was a complete mess and the working conditions were unbearable."

Bryan Cichy isn't alone. According to school district records, some 75 percent of the teachers who worked at the Minneapolis Edison school in the fall of 1998 have either left or been fired. That number doesn't include the original principal, the entire special-education staff, the social worker, the technology director, three different speech therapists, the secretary, the person in charge of food services, and various other staffers.

Beverly Bjork, the school's start-up director last year, says the displaced employees simply didn't fit the Edison design. "It's not for everyone," Bjork asserts. "This is very hard work. You have to be committed to our team approach, and there's high accountability for student achievement."

Many of the former teachers, however, offer a different perspective. They claim Edison was unprepared to deal with its student population; that the company skimped on equipment and support staff; and that working conditions were made intolerable by a management that ignored their concerns.

In a three-month investigation, City Pages found that while support for Edison remains strong among parents and its nonprofit sponsor, the school's maiden year has been troubled. In addition to losing much of its staff, district records indicate, the school produced test-score gains below district average, offered fewer social services than its mainstream counterparts, and struggled to fulfill special-education requirements.

Minneapolis is not the only city where Edison has faced what its officials call "start-up problems." From Colorado Springs to Boston, Miami to Duluth, the firm's schools have drawn complaints of everything from academic failure to discrimination. Yet the company continues to expand, roughly doubling the number of schools it operates each year; by the end of this year it plans to take its classroom-as-cash cow formula to Wall Street with an initial public stock offering. But if the Minneapolis experience is any guide, observers say, both investors and schools may be in for a rough ride.

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