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 art teacher, Tommy Goodwin, was flabbergasted. "Ramhorst had spent three weeks with those students getting them to behave," he says. "Then Bjork comes in and completely undoes all the hard work she had put in with that class."

After school that day, the entire staff was summoned for a meeting with PPL officials and Edison personnel from New York. There it was announced that principal Zackery would be leaving the school and Bjork would take her job on an interim basis. Goodwin shot up and said, "I can't believe you're going to leave us with her. I feel very much like I'm working for Hitler." Several teachers began to cry, according to accounts of those present. Ramhorst was dismissed from Edison at the end of last year and now works for another Minneapolis public school.

According to Jill Jurgens, who quit her job as director of the school's Technology as a Second Language program in February, the incident was typical. "I would call New York up and tell them all the problems the staff was having with the school and Bjork," says Jurgens. "They knew, but they never did anything about it." Jurgens says she left Edison in part because of her adversarial relationship with Bjork. "I haven't been there since, but it still makes my blood boil."

Jeff Tolbert

In another incident frequently cited by the disaffected teachers, Bjork fired the school's speech therapist for not exiting quickly enough during a fire drill. "As I walked through the building to check for staff and students to be exited, you were seated in your office doing paperwork," she wrote in a memo to the therapist. "You looked up at me and made no motion to exit. I had to tell you to leave the building. Your actions are insubordination and violate the Minnesota Safety Code... As of today, your services are no longer needed at this site."

Bjork declines to discuss most of the former teachers' accounts, deeming them personnel issues. On the matter of the speech therapist, she comments, "Safety for students is a number one concern at our school, whether it's a drill or a real fire. Parents send their kids to us so they know they'll be safe."

Former staffers, however, say they took the episode as a warning: Antagonizing Bjork, they concluded, was trouble. Their resentment grew when, in March, a popular teacher was asked to leave over what his colleagues considered unfounded charges. The teacher--who earlier in the year had tipped off WCCO to equipment problems at the school--had sent several kids to the principal's office for fighting one day. Later that day Bjork told him that some of the students had complained about him.

"She then said to me, 'Since you're a first-year teacher, I'm going to save your career by asking you to resign,'" says the man, who asked that his name not be published. He refused; the school district was asked to investigate. According to district documents, allegations that the teacher "used inappropriate language and inappropriately grabbed a student" were not substantiated. An investigation by the Minnesota Board of Teaching, prompted by a complaint from an unnamed party at the school, is ongoing. The teacher, like most of those who either quit or were dismissed from Edison, remains an employee of the district and now teaches at another school.

Audrey McRoy, the business agent at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, says that any time students claim abuse, the district must investigate the charges. But, she adds, it was improper for Bjork to ask the teacher to discuss the charges without union representatives or other third parties present.

Bryan Cichy agrees, noting that as the lead teacher in charge of supervising the dismissed teacher, he felt he should have been present at the meeting as well. He says many former Edison staffers remain convinced that their colleague was unfairly targeted. "It was absolutely vindictive what Bjork did," Cichy maintains. "And that was by no means a single incident.

"The stress the teachers were under is almost impossible to describe," he adds. "You just never knew what you could say or who you could go to with your problems. And you never knew whether or not Bev was going to get you next."

Teachers union president Louise Sundin says the teachers' accounts have left her unimpressed with Edison's management prowess. "In a day and age of teacher shortages, you don't go around firing people with rare and highly specialized licenses because they didn't exit quickly enough during a fire drill," she says. "One of the tenets of quality human-resource management is to drive fear out of the workplace. In this school, fear and intimidation were rampant. It was fostered in the everyday interaction, and it took the teachers' focus away from the kids and the classroom." Teachers apparently agreed: In a year-end survey conducted by the school district, 80 percent of Edison teachers said they were often kept from teaching because of student misbehavior; districtwide fewer than 50 percent of teachers had that complaint.

Edison fared badly on almost every other question in the survey as well. Only 16 percent of Edison's teachers thought their school dealt with discipline problems effectively; by comparison, 70 percent of teachers districtwide approved of their schools' discipline policies. Only 50 percent of staffers thought they were able to provide a safe environment for students, compared to 93 percent across the district. Overall, half of Edison's teachers said they liked working at the school, compared to more than 90 percent of teachers districtwide.

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