Time Out Is Money

A for-profit firm takes a crack at Minneapolis's most troubled students

Robert Spellman is in the middle of explaining his company's approach to education when a teacher staggers toward him, struggling to restrain a student half his size. "Man, what the fuck you do that for," the boy stammers as he tries to free his arms, which the teacher is holding firmly behind his back. Spellman rushes over and places one hand on the student's wrist and the other on his shoulder, keeping the kid's hands tightly wrapped around his body. The student lets his legs go limp.

"Are you going to walk with me?" Spellman politely asks. "Do you want to stand up and walk with me?" "Yup," comes the mumbled response. As Spellman slackens his grip, the boy makes a halfhearted attempt to wriggle free, then slowly begins to walk down the hall.

That, Spellman explains after turning the boy over to another teacher, was the CPI hold, developed by Wisconsin-based training center Crisis Prevention Institute. It calls for touching only shoulders and wrists in order to minimize the chance of a fight. "And notice how I kept my body away from the child," Spellman says. "So if he had any sexual issues they wouldn't have come up."

With his wire-rimmed glasses and light mustache, Crawford director Robert Spellman looks like a teacher from central casting
With his wire-rimmed glasses and light mustache, Crawford director Robert Spellman looks like a teacher from central casting

Spellman, the director of special education at Minneapolis's newest for-profit public school, moves easily between explaining academic theory and putting the principles into practice. "Notice how I gave the student a choice to walk with me," he says, segueing into a discussion of psychiatrist William Glasser's work on choice theory.

The institution Spellman heads, Crawford Day School, is run under contract with the Minneapolis school district by a Virginia-based company, Crawford First Education. The facility, located in the former Barbers Co. headquarters on Hennepin Avenue and Industrial Boulevard in southeast Minneapolis, serves 40 students between second and twelfth grade who have been determined to have a "level five emotional or behavioral disorder" (EBD)--a diagnosis that requires them to spend the entire school day outside regular classrooms. Students diagnosed with disorders any higher than level five are sent to residential programs. The Crawford contract, signed last year, marks the first time the district has hired a for-profit company to run an EBD school, and experts say it puts Minneapolis at the forefront of a national trend of outsourcing public education services.

Spellman, whose wire-rimmed glasses and light mustache give him the look of a teacher from central casting, says the EBD label can mean many things: While some of his students have a tendency to be violent, others avoid contact with other kids. Still, the numbers tell a story. Roughly half the students at Crawford have a police record. Even more are on medication to treat attention-deficit disorder or depression. On average, students are two years behind their grade level, and some lag by as many as five. "The most predominant characteristic," Spellman concludes, "is that for whatever reasons, these students simply weren't achieving in a regular school setting."

As Spellman walks the labyrinth of windowless hallways in the former office building, he stops in front of a series of laminated posters that outline the phases (named "Vision," "Super Vision," and the like) students are expected to go through during their time at Crawford. One of the placards looks crumpled, torn, and taped together again: "Obviously not everyone agrees with our approach," Spellman laughs. "A lot of places don't allow stuff on the walls. But we believe that if we don't put things on the walls, then students won't have a chance to rip them down."

The apparent contradiction is as good an example as any of Crawford's philosophy. Traditionally, Spellman explains, schools have punished students who break the rules and rewarded those who don't. But such methods, Spellman believes, prevent kids from understanding--and changing--their behavior. Crawford, Spellman explains, uses an "intrinsic approach" under which teachers lead children in analyzing their actions.

For example, he says, when one student hits another, a Crawford teacher might start a group session in which the whole class talks about how the violence made them feel. "The idea is to get the student to choose to behave rather than externally controlling their behavior," he says. "We want to see the behavior that got the students in here in the first place because that's the only way we're going to be able to do anything about it."

And if that sounds like a lot of fuzzy educational theory, Spellman and his superiors point out that it's also a hard-and-fast business proposition. Crawford, which opened its first school eleven years ago, now manages four schools around the nation and, according to chief administrative officer Deborah White, plans to open two more every year. White says Crawford aims to take a flat five percent profit out of the payment it receives from each district where it operates; in Minneapolis that payment will amount to $3.2 million when the site reaches its goal of serving 80 students. The company's two schools in Virginia are currently profitable, White adds, but the two in Chicago have yet to break even.

Outsourcing is not a brand-new concept for the Minneapolis schools. In addition to relatively small contracts--such as a short-lived agreement under which Sylvan Learning Centers provided small-group tutoring--administrators last year inked a deal with the New York-based for-profit Edison Schools Inc. to run an entire public school (see "Reading, Writing, and Revenue," October 21, 1999). Before that, the school board had made headlines nationwide when it hired Public Strategies Group Inc. to provide "superintendent services" from 1993 to 1997.

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