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 Edison Project (now called Edison Schools Inc.) was brought to the attention of Minneapolis officials by the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living (PPL), which saw the company as a way to further its own mission of helping low-income people to become self-sufficient. "We need to be different," then PPL head Steve Cramer told the Pioneer Press in 1998. "Our proposal is a quantum improvement over anything being done so far because of the sophistication of Edison and the money they bring to start it up."

When PPL made its pitch to the district, school board chair Judy Farmer was skeptical. "Cramer made it sound like it would be whiz-bang, plop it down and it's running," Farmer recalls. "But I'm always wary when anyone in education offers you a silver bullet. I don't care how much money they've got."

Eventually the board contracted with Edison to manage a school that would officially remain part of the Minneapolis public system. District guidelines would have to be followed, and teachers would be union members and district employees. Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, told the Star Tribune at the time, "I would frankly rather be a part of the next experiment that [Minneapolis families] choose than have them experimented on without our involvement."

Under the contract, Edison would receive the same amount of money per student allocated to every other public school, a formula that works out to approximately $6,000 per student. It would start with 300 students in grades kindergarten to five and, over the course of its five-year contract, ratchet up to 1,200 students--and a tax-dollar total of roughly $7 million.

When Edison/PPL opened its doors on August 31, 1998, teachers fresh from weeks of training greeted incoming students with balloons and welcome banners. Throughout the summer, contractors had been remodeling what used to be the Brown Institute at the corner of Hiawatha Avenue and East Lake Street: Drab beige walls had been painted pastel colors matching the new carpets and brightly colored chairs. A large picture of Thomas Edison had been placed on the wall in the entryway. "If this is an example of the first day," then principal DeBorah Zackery told the Star Tribune, "we're going to have a wonderful year."

It wouldn't be the last time Edison found reporters in its building. Two months later an unhappy teacher tipped WCCO-TV (Channel 4) news, whose hidden cameras captured images of Edison's much-ballyhooed computers still in boxes, rooms without adequate furniture, and a nearly empty library.

After the report aired in mid-November, Cramer sent a letter to PPL board members criticizing the piece as misleading and noting that most of the school's "start-up" problems had been dealt with. "Quite frankly," he wrote, "there was not much of a story here."

Martha Hadland, a lead teacher who was fired at year's end, says that the lack of equipment, while frustrating, was by no means Edison's biggest problem. To her the incident simply foreshadowed the company's inability to live up to its many promises. Now a teacher at Minneapolis's North Star Community School, Hadland says she's trying to forget her year at Edison. "Can I just say that I feel like I've died and been dropped into heaven? I was beginning to forget that teaching could be this much fun."

 

It was the week before Thanksgiving. A teacher who had been struggling with a particularly rambunctious class was once again finding control slipping from her hands, so she called in Susan Ramhorst.

Ramhorst, Edison's special-education coordinator, had seen worse in her six years teaching in an Iowa juvenile detention center. But the swearing and arguing in the class did seem to make it hard to focus on schoolwork. As she launched into a discussion about respect, one student stood up. "He started to threaten me," Ramhorst recalls. "He kept saying, 'I'm going to regulate ya! I'm going to regulate ya!'" As the boy walked toward her, she says, he punched another student directly in the head.

Ramhorst took the student to the principal's office to be suspended. Within minutes of her return to the classroom, another student punched another child. Again she headed for the principal's office.

She was stunned to see the two students appear back in the classroom later that day, flanked by start-up director Bjork, who wanted to know what had happened. "I told her that the boys chose to hit and that they shouldn't be allowed in the classroom," Ramhorst remembers. "Well, where do they need to be?" Bjork responded. "They need not to be in the classroom," Ramhorst insisted. "Those boys made a choice to hit and they shouldn't be allowed back." Bjork, she says, sat the two boys down and left the room.

Ramhorst was furious. "She didn't even say a word to me," she recalls. "And she did it right in front of all the other kids."

Later that day in art class, one of the students began acting up again. When Ramhorst told him he couldn't swear in the classroom, she remembers, "He said: 'You need to shut your mouth.'" Then he looked her directly in the eye and announced: "Yeah, I said that. What are you going to do about it? Say something to me and I'll go get the little blond lady to check you again."

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