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.

After Carter left, Edison hired a recent college graduate with a liberal-arts background for the position. He was Alex Bjork, Beverly Bjork's son. PPL officials say the principal was not involved with her son's hiring.

Alex Bjork was not the only recent graduate on Edison's roster. According to several teachers and Jill Jurgens, the technology director, who was also involved in the hiring process, 60 percent of the school's teachers were in their first year on the job. (Districtwide only ten percent of all teachers are new hires.)

Nationally, the American Federation of Teachers has criticized Edison's preference for first-year teachers. "Although most educators would concur that it is not good for students to have a majority of inexperienced teachers," a 1998 AFT report notes, "this policy does keep a company's personnel costs down."

Jeff Tolbert

According to Deborah McGriff, Edison's executive vice president of development in New York, the company's innovative concept naturally attracts younger teachers. "We do not hire them to save money," she says.

It was the relatively green staff, combined with the growing behavior problems at the school, that last fall prompted Edison's teachers to demand that the school hire child-development technicians, or CDTs--behavior specialists employed in most Minneapolis public schools to help teachers deal with disruptive students. But, says Hadland, "Edison had a real problem coming up with the money." While two CDTs were eventually hired, their positions were cut for the 1999-2000 school year.

In Bjork's view, the teachers' requests were misguided. "What Edison tries to do is to improve academics rather than focusing on poor behavior," she explains.

By the end of the year, some of the former teachers say, they were focusing simply on getting through the day. Art teacher Tommy Goodwin says that during his first few months at Edison, he regularly brought up his concerns to Edison officials from New York, convinced that headquarters would help out if it were aware of the school's problems. But in March he got a letter from Newgene Ray, an Edison consultant who has spent time at the Minneapolis school, suggesting that he was on his own. "You can build your own power base and eliminate the need to rely on others," Ray wrote. "Each time you [call for support], you reduce the level and quality of what you stand for."

Goodwin says he took Ray's advice: He locked his door to keep out students who wandered the halls, and he tried to ignore the kids who'd look him in the eye and say, "Fuck you." "Toward the end," he says, "you didn't even try to get help."

 

A few weeks before the end of the school year, PPL and Edison held an open house for parents interested in enrolling their children for the fall. Hundreds turned out, and PPL's Nissen had to climb on a chair to be heard over the excited chatter. In the end, even though Edison had nearly doubled its number of students to more than 500, an equal number remained on the waiting list.

PPL officials remain firm in their commitment to Edison. Last year's problems were start-up troubles, Nissen maintains, prompted in part by the fact that "we just didn't get the right staff the first year." The group is more than happy with Beverly Bjork, she adds, and stands by all the decisions she made last year. "She cleaned up that school," Nissen says. "She's done a great job laying a foundation for it." With a brand-new staff and a former St. Paul principal at the head of the school, she adds, things should go more smoothly from now on: "You wait and watch us fly."

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson is also optimistic. "Obviously there were some problems there the first year," she says. "We are pleased that they have hired an outstanding new principal and they have many new teachers, so it will be almost like starting over. I have a great deal of confidence in the team at Edison this year." Almost as an aside, she adds, "But we will be closely monitoring the school's progress."

One of the things district officials will be watching, it appears, are the test scores of Edison students. Nationally, promises of rapid academic gains have been among the company's top selling points: "Edison students are moving forward against high standards while U.S. students [as a whole], a more advantaged group, are standing still," according to the company's annual report. But a 1998 study by the American Federation of Teachers charged that "the evidence on student achievement [at Edison's schools] is mixed and inconclusive.

"There are discrepancies between the record of Edison schools, as measured by standard methods of educational evaluation, and the company's sales presentations and promotional materials," the report stated. "Edison has exaggerated test-score gains and emphasized favorable comparisons in order to show Edison schools in the most positive light."

In Minneapolis Edison has released results of internal tests showing dramatic reading gains among its students in the first year; the figures were reprinted in the PPL newsletter and the Star Tribune. District tests, however, paint a different picture. In the Northwest Achievement Levels Test, reading gains at Edison hovered near the district average, and math gains were substantially below both district and national averages.

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