The Wrath of Cooper

A Minneapolis elementary school sends the Edison Project packing--and district administrators back to the drawing board

There was a moment last week at Cooper Elementary School when Minneapolis School Board chair Judy Farmer took on the persona of a kindergarten teacher. Several speakers had been interrupted by the angry crowd, and downright heckling had begun. Farmer stepped to the microphone and waited for the room to quiet. "Let's take a lesson from what we teach our children and try and take turns," she said with a warm smile. "We need to have a productive give-and-take here tonight. We need to play fair."

But the 150-some Cooper teachers and parents in attendance were in no mood to settle down. For weeks their smallish brick schoolhouse in south Minneapolis's river district had been abuzz with rumors that administrators planned to turn Cooper over to for-profit Edison Schools Inc. Farmer, along with superintendent Carol Johnson and Edison executives, was there to calm the waters.

"We're here to present you an opportunity," Johnson told the crowd. "Cooper is making excellent progress, but we want to make sure we do everything possible to explore other options that may contribute to [its] success." No decisions had been made, the super stressed, calling the meeting an "exploratory discussion."

Cooper staffers and parents, however, had a different take. They'd termed the event a "parent rally" and had strung a huge banner, signed by most of the school's K-5 students, across the stage. "We know Cooper rules," it read. "Why don't you?" People lined up at the microphone, often vehemently arguing with Edison vice president of development Deborah McGriff. At one point a translator asked whether any of Cooper's Somali parents wished to make comments. The only response was: "We very much like Cooper school and would like to see it stay the way it is."

Finally, a mother asked the evening's defining question: "If the parents say we don't want this, are you going to go away?" The answer came two days later when district officials sent out a letter stating that they'd decided to leave the school alone.

For administrators, however, that wasn't the end of the story: In fact, the defeat at Cooper may have marked the beginning of a whole new headache.

In 1998 the district signed a contract with the local social-service agency Project for Pride in Living (PPL) to set up an experimental public school managed by Edison, a publicly traded company that runs 79 schools nationwide, including 3 in Minnesota (see "Reading, Writing, and Revenue," October 20). The contract stipulated that the district would provide Edison/PPL with space for 1,200 students by the start of the school's fourth year. Some 550 K-7 kids now attend classes at Edison/PPL's site in the former Brown Institute at Hiawatha Avenue and Lake Street; for next year, the contract envisions an enrollment increase of 300, with an additional 350 in 2001.

The problem, says David Dudycha, the district's director of policy and planning, is that administrators don't quite know where to put those extra students. In addition to Cooper, he says, south Minneapolis's Morris Park Elementary was being considered. But after last week's debacle, that option is out. "We thought there might be a greater buy-in by the parents [for the Edison program], but there wasn't," Dudycha explains. "We are not currently looking at an existing elementary program as a possible site." Instead, he says, the district will explore the possibility of leasing space near the current Edison/PPL site. "We're looking wherever we can find a spot."

Cathy Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher at Cooper who helped organize the rally, says the district was wise to give up. Had Edison taken over the school, she claims, few staffers would have stayed--a prediction backed up by five other teachers attending the meeting. "I would never work for a for-profit corporation," she states, her voice shaking. "It just disgusts me."

Teachers around the district, Sullivan continues, are familiar with the troubles that led 75 percent of Edison/PPL's teachers to resign before the first year was out. "I don't know what they're going to do," she concludes. "The word is around--they're going to run into [opposition] wherever they go."

The dominant question at the November 29 meeting, however, had nothing to do with personnel troubles: What those in attendance demanded to know, over and over again, was how the company could make a profit while operating on the same revenues public schools receive. Edison's McGriff was visibly agitated when she responded that the firm does not cut corners: On the contrary, she said, it invests money upfront for high-tech equipment, a longer school year, and the like. "We bring $1.5 million to start every one of our schools," she noted.

"You keep saying the same thing," someone called from the audience. "What generates the profit? Who's paying for that extra stuff?"

The exchange continued in an almost comical fashion as McGriff explained Edison's corporate philosophy while one parent after another asked the same question. Finally, board chair Farmer put an end to the debate by bluntly stating, "Honestly, no one is quite sure how they'll ever make a profit. They have some big investors. But right now, there's only hunches. I'm about as curious as you are."

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