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.

By January, though, the number of students in Edison's SPEN room had fallen to just one. District officials questioned Bjork, who, according to superintendent Carol Johnson, responded by saying that parents with special-needs kids were simply not choosing the Edison school. "We thought it was perhaps that [Edison] had not communicated the availability of these services to parents looking at the program," says the superintendent. "We will definitely will be monitoring this more closely in the future."

Susan Ramhorst, who was in charge of the SPEN room during her tenure as Edison's special-education coordinator, says her bosses made no secret of their disdain for the concept. "Bev [Bjork] told me in no uncertain terms that we house the room, but it's not part of the Edison Design," Ramhorst remembers. "Bev would always ask me, 'Why do these kids need specials?' and 'Can't we shorten their school day?' She didn't support that program, and she kept telling me I was too friendly with the parents. 'Give them the choice. They don't have to be here,' Bev would say."

Bob Spellman, the assistant director of special education for the district last year, says he doesn't know exactly why the number of students in the room dropped. But, he adds, he made it his personal responsibility to turn the trend around. "I made it clear to [Edison] that it wasn't their luxury to decide who would be placed in the room and who wouldn't," he says. "We made sure they got their fair share of Minneapolis public schools students who needed placement in the room. I instructed [a person in charge of the room] to call me if any student was rejected placement for any reason." By the end of the year, the number of students in the room had once again risen to the stipulated level.

Jeff Tolbert


Susan Ramhorst says the problems went beyond the SPEN room. When school started, she was the only staffer available to deal with everyday behavior problems, special-ed kids, and the SPEN room; most Minneapolis schools of Edison's size employ a full-time special-ed teacher and one or two assistants. "My licenses are in emotional and behavior disorders," Ramhorst notes. "I didn't have the licensure to deal with students with learning disabilities."

It was a month before a speech therapist and a teacher qualified to work with learning disabilities were hired, and a social worker didn't come on board until mid-February. "It was very unethical, the level of services we were providing those children," Ramhorst says. "All I have to say is, the free computer is not worth it."

Belinda Lewis, a speech therapist who left the school in December, says she'll never work for Edison again. "Edison is the biggest rinky-dink operation I have ever worked for," Lewis complains. "They did not have nearly enough staff to deal with all the students with special needs. I couldn't believe they didn't have a social worker, and we'd be lucky to see the school psychologist once a week."

Andrea Canter, lead psychologist for the Minneapolis public schools, confirms that last assertion. Last year, she notes, Edison purchased slightly over 150 hours of support from her department, whereas comparable schools purchased roughly 400 hours each. "[The 150 hours] probably wasn't as much as they needed," she adds. "I think that the staff got shortchanged because there was little time for [a psychologist] to consult and provide general support for the team."

Cheryl Johnson, Edison's newly hired "director of Special Edison," says all the necessary special-education staff is in place for the 1999-2000 school year, and that private contractors will supply psychology services and send a social worker one day a week. Johnson cautions against comparing the district's and Edison's approaches to special-needs kids: "Special Edison," she explains, calls for special-ed teachers to work in regular classrooms, and for any remaining problems to be addressed by teachers, family members, the principal, and a "community resource director." "The point is to draw resources from the community and to get the families involved directly," she says.

Terry Zielinski, one of two lead social workers for the school district, remains skeptical. Last year, he says, he made a point of raising the question of social-work support services with Bjork, who informed him that Edison had other programs to address its students' needs--programs, he says, that sounded much like what was in place at other public schools in addition to full-time social workers. "All Minneapolis public schools the size of Edison with a SPEN room have at least one full-time social worker," Zielinski says. "It's very hard for me to conceive how the children are going to get anything out of a social worker coming in just one day a week."

Susan Carter started last year as Edison's community resource director, but quit after three weeks. "I was so excited to work at Edison," she says. "The whole program seemed so innovative. But when you got down to it, the program just wasn't reasonable. We were often supposed to do the work of a traditional social worker, and frankly, I wasn't qualified. I think Edison uses this technique because it utilizes the present staff and therefore it's cost-effective, but I don't think it serves the children."

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