Reading, Writing, and Revenue
The longer Bryan Cichy thinks back, the more absurd it all seems. A little over a year ago he was sitting in the VIP lounge at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City Hotel overlooking the Washington, D.C., skyline. His room ran well over $250 a night, a tab that didn't even include the bill for the seemingly endless succession of catered lunches and dinner buffets. And none of it was costing him a dime.
Just the thought of it made him smile--he was on a business trip. During his entire seven years as a teacher in Minnesota, he had never been sent as far as Iowa. Not that it bothered him much; Cichy knew public school systems had no good reason to send him anywhere. But that was the whole point: He wouldn't be working for a regular public school anymore.
He had just accepted a job to teach Spanish at a brand-new Minneapolis school run by the Edison Project, the nation's largest for-profit public-school management company and the brainchild of flamboyant entrepreneur Chris Whittle. The company had flown him out East for a training seminar with foreign-language teachers from Edison schools around the nation. He knew it was silly, but as he sampled the hors d'oeuvres laid out across the top of a grand piano, he likened himself to the hazy caricature of a hard-talking businessman he'd picked up from the movies. "After all," he said to himself, "isn't the education of our youth important business?"
But Cichy was excited about a lot more than five-star hotels. For years he had been a vocal supporter of education reform, serving on the school board in the western Minnesota town of Breckenridge and working on a state-sponsored effort called the Minnesota Educational Effectiveness Program. But no matter how long the committee meetings, how eloquent the reports, he'd never felt anywhere close to true reform. The system was just too bureaucratic, he believed, its failing institutions incapable of innovation.
The Edison Project promised to change that. Before signing his contract, Cichy had researched the company and found himself wowed by the "Edison School Design" the firm had spent three years and more than $45 million to create. The plan called for stretching both the school day and year, giving students the equivalent of an extra four years of instruction during the course of a K-12 education. Teachers would be paid ten percent more than their mainstream public-school counterparts and would implement a topnotch curriculum that, among other things, required all students to be fluent in Spanish by sixth grade. The company would fill classrooms with TV sets, VCRs, camcorders, and computers; every teacher would get a laptop and, after the second grade, students would get their own computer to take home. There would be ongoing training and a performance-based career ladder, with experienced "lead teachers" heading teams of less seasoned educators.
And here was the best part: All of this would be provided not in an exclusive private-school setting, but in a public institution, operated by Edison under contract with the Minneapolis school district, using the same tax dollars--and the same open admissions policy--as any other public school. In light of all this, Cichy didn't care that Edison was a for-profit company: Maybe, he reasoned, big business was exactly what education needed.
A year later, Cichy wonders how he could have been so naive. After teaching at Edison for nearly seven months, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and placed on medical leave. The vaunted Edison Design, he charges, turned out to be all smoke and mirrors: "Mathematically they just couldn't deliver what they promised," he avers. "The school was a complete mess and the working conditions were unbearable."
Bryan Cichy isn't alone. According to school district records, some 75 percent of the teachers who worked at the Minneapolis Edison school in the fall of 1998 have either left or been fired. That number doesn't include the original principal, the entire special-education staff, the social worker, the technology director, three different speech therapists, the secretary, the person in charge of food services, and various other staffers.
Beverly Bjork, the school's start-up director last year, says the displaced employees simply didn't fit the Edison design. "It's not for everyone," Bjork asserts. "This is very hard work. You have to be committed to our team approach, and there's high accountability for student achievement."
Many of the former teachers, however, offer a different perspective. They claim Edison was unprepared to deal with its student population; that the company skimped on equipment and support staff; and that working conditions were made intolerable by a management that ignored their concerns.
In a three-month investigation, City Pages found that while support for Edison remains strong among parents and its nonprofit sponsor, the school's maiden year has been troubled. In addition to losing much of its staff, district records indicate, the school produced test-score gains below district average, offered fewer social services than its mainstream counterparts, and struggled to fulfill special-education requirements.
Minneapolis is not the only city where Edison has faced what its officials call "start-up problems." From Colorado Springs to Boston, Miami to Duluth, the firm's schools have drawn complaints of everything from academic failure to discrimination. Yet the company continues to expand, roughly doubling the number of schools it operates each year; by the end of this year it plans to take its classroom-as-cash cow formula to Wall Street with an initial public stock offering. But if the Minneapolis experience is any guide, observers say, both investors and schools may be in for a rough ride.
The Edison Project (now called Edison Schools Inc.) was brought to the attention of Minneapolis officials by the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living (PPL), which saw the company as a way to further its own mission of helping low-income people to become self-sufficient. "We need to be different," then PPL head Steve Cramer told the Pioneer Press in 1998. "Our proposal is a quantum improvement over anything being done so far because of the sophistication of Edison and the money they bring to start it up."
When PPL made its pitch to the district, school board chair Judy Farmer was skeptical. "Cramer made it sound like it would be whiz-bang, plop it down and it's running," Farmer recalls. "But I'm always wary when anyone in education offers you a silver bullet. I don't care how much money they've got."
Eventually the board contracted with Edison to manage a school that would officially remain part of the Minneapolis public system. District guidelines would have to be followed, and teachers would be union members and district employees. Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, told the Star Tribune at the time, "I would frankly rather be a part of the next experiment that [Minneapolis families] choose than have them experimented on without our involvement."
Under the contract, Edison would receive the same amount of money per student allocated to every other public school, a formula that works out to approximately $6,000 per student. It would start with 300 students in grades kindergarten to five and, over the course of its five-year contract, ratchet up to 1,200 students--and a tax-dollar total of roughly $7 million.
When Edison/PPL opened its doors on August 31, 1998, teachers fresh from weeks of training greeted incoming students with balloons and welcome banners. Throughout the summer, contractors had been remodeling what used to be the Brown Institute at the corner of Hiawatha Avenue and East Lake Street: Drab beige walls had been painted pastel colors matching the new carpets and brightly colored chairs. A large picture of Thomas Edison had been placed on the wall in the entryway. "If this is an example of the first day," then principal DeBorah Zackery told the Star Tribune, "we're going to have a wonderful year."
It wouldn't be the last time Edison found reporters in its building. Two months later an unhappy teacher tipped WCCO-TV (Channel 4) news, whose hidden cameras captured images of Edison's much-ballyhooed computers still in boxes, rooms without adequate furniture, and a nearly empty library.
After the report aired in mid-November, Cramer sent a letter to PPL board members criticizing the piece as misleading and noting that most of the school's "start-up" problems had been dealt with. "Quite frankly," he wrote, "there was not much of a story here."
Martha Hadland, a lead teacher who was fired at year's end, says that the lack of equipment, while frustrating, was by no means Edison's biggest problem. To her the incident simply foreshadowed the company's inability to live up to its many promises. Now a teacher at Minneapolis's North Star Community School, Hadland says she's trying to forget her year at Edison. "Can I just say that I feel like I've died and been dropped into heaven? I was beginning to forget that teaching could be this much fun."
It was the week before Thanksgiving. A teacher who had been struggling with a particularly rambunctious class was once again finding control slipping from her hands, so she called in Susan Ramhorst.
Ramhorst, Edison's special-education coordinator, had seen worse in her six years teaching in an Iowa juvenile detention center. But the swearing and arguing in the class did seem to make it hard to focus on schoolwork. As she launched into a discussion about respect, one student stood up. "He started to threaten me," Ramhorst recalls. "He kept saying, 'I'm going to regulate ya! I'm going to regulate ya!'" As the boy walked toward her, she says, he punched another student directly in the head.
Ramhorst took the student to the principal's office to be suspended. Within minutes of her return to the classroom, another student punched another child. Again she headed for the principal's office.
She was stunned to see the two students appear back in the classroom later that day, flanked by start-up director Bjork, who wanted to know what had happened. "I told her that the boys chose to hit and that they shouldn't be allowed in the classroom," Ramhorst remembers. "Well, where do they need to be?" Bjork responded. "They need not to be in the classroom," Ramhorst insisted. "Those boys made a choice to hit and they shouldn't be allowed back." Bjork, she says, sat the two boys down and left the room.
Ramhorst was furious. "She didn't even say a word to me," she recalls. "And she did it right in front of all the other kids."
Later that day in art class, one of the students began acting up again. When Ramhorst told him he couldn't swear in the classroom, she remembers, "He said: 'You need to shut your mouth.'" Then he looked her directly in the eye and announced: "Yeah, I said that. What are you going to do about it? Say something to me and I'll go get the little blond lady to check you again."
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."
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.
In a meeting room at PPL's offices just south of downtown Minneapolis, John Hartwell and Cathy Nissen are seated at a large round table. Nissen holds a folder full of papers documenting the last year at Edison, including a report she's preparing for the PPL board. Among the papers is a PPL newsletter titled "First year at Edison/PPL Elementary School championed by all." Hartwell, a retired businessman, donates 20 hours each week to act as PPL's treasurer and chair the group's education committee. Nissen is the PPL staffer who oversees the school for the organization.
For years, Hartwell explains, PPL has focused on efforts to help "hard-to-employ people" find jobs and housing. "Why are they hard to employ?" he asks. "Because their math and reading skills are around the fourth-grade level. So you start to ask yourself: 'Why don't we do something about it at the beginning, before these people become so hard to employ?'" Nissen adds that the group's board was eager to work with Edison because of its strong curriculum and reports of high parent satisfaction.
Nissen and Hartwell say PPL is more than pleased with the company. "What we found most encouraging was the positive reports coming from parents," Nissen says, noting that in a local survey conducted by Edison this summer, parents rated the school an 8.5 on a 10-point scale.
On the topic of the teachers' complaints, Hartwell grows agitated. "To spend grown-up time sitting here talking about this dirt--it just absolutely infuriates me," he says. "When PPL is out busting its tail in the inner city trying to make it a better place to live, I can't believe we're sitting here talking about all this." A former mattress-company CEO, Hartwell is quick to offer a business analogy. "If you're trying to find out about a company and you ask employees who are no longer there, you're not going to get a fair read on the company," he says. "You're going to get a negative.
"The world doesn't like Edison because it's competition, and the union doesn't like them because they have a monopoly," he adds. "Our schools are failing. Why do we have all this debate about anybody that's trying to do something new? It's the for-profit business, isn't it? If this wasn't a for-profit company, there wouldn't be an issue."
Hartwell rises and circles the table. "If you want to talk about taxpayers' dollars," he says, vigorously pointing at the parent survey, "you show me a public school that even does this. That's the problem: The public school system is set up to serve the teachers and the unions--not the parents and the students. Well, I'll tell you something: This country was built on the profit motive. So if profit incents people, makes them work harder to put together a better school, let Edison keep their profit. Big deal."
Edison Schools Inc. is the creation of entrepreneur Chris Whittle, who has been praised as a business visionary and denounced as a two-bit huckster. In the late 1980s, after he and a partner turned around the floundering Esquire magazine, Whittle launched his most controversial project to date: Channel One, which provided schools across the nation with a news program, along with the TV equipment to show it. All Whittle wanted in return was a promise that students would watch the twelve-minute program's two minutes of commercials.
To get Channel One started, Whittle got Time Inc. to invest $185 million and Philips Electronics to pitch in $175 million. By 1994 financial strains forced Whittle to sell the business. Both Time and Philips reportedly wrote off their entire investments. At present Channel One, managed by a different company, is watched by roughly 8 million students in 12,000 schools across the nation.
The idea for the Edison schools came to Whittle while he was working on the Channel One project in 1991. In 1992 he convinced Benno C. Schmidt, then president of Yale University, to lead the firm, marking a critical step in establishing Edison's credibility. An all-star group of business executives, scholars, educators, and journalists was assembled to create the Edison Design.
Since then Whittle's company has seen exponential growth. It has raised $232 million in private capital to fuel an expansion to 77 schools and 37,000 students. In addition to Minneapolis, the firm runs two schools in Duluth; a group of Roseville parents have plans to open an Edison charter in the fall of 2000.
The company's progress has not come without controversy. In Colorado Springs, Edison took over an elementary school in 1996; by the end of that school year more than one-quarter of the teachers had left, many citing poor discipline, inadequate special-education programs, and unresponsive management.
In Miami an elementary school Edison has run since 1996 drew front-page headlines this year when parents charged that one of its teachers had routinely beaten students with a stick. Teachers, meanwhile, alleged that the company skimped on support, cut language instruction, and provided needed supplies only when district auditors came around. More than one-third of the Miami school's teachers, and the principal, asked for transfers during the first year.
Elsewhere the controversies have been less sensational. In Sherman, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas, Edison schools have attracted media scrutiny for failing to significantly improve student test scores. And Duluth public-school administrators have complained that the company's charter school has siphoned precious tax money away from the district, while teachers threatened to strike in part over the district's support for Edison.
Still, parents and officials in many districts have asked the company to take over additional schools, helping to raise its total revenues (chiefly tax dollars turned over by states and school districts) to $133 million last year. Earlier this year Edison filed papers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission seeking permission for an initial public offering of $172.5 million in stock. According to its prospectus--an SEC-required document that outlines finances and corporate strategy--the firm plans to expand into the larger school districts that teach roughly half the nation's students. Those districts, the document notes, had combined budgets of $190 billion last year: "Illustrating the magnitude of the overall market opportunity, we estimate that just 1 percent market share would represent approximately $1.9 billion in annual revenues."
How Edison will actually squeeze a profit out of those potential revenues is another question. In interviews, executives have argued that their strategy relies on economies of scale: As Edison opens more schools, costs such as central administration and curriculum development will remain fixed while revenue grows, allowing the firm not only to take a seven-percent pretax profit, but also to spend more at each site than regular public schools do.
In a 1998 interview with the business journal Across the Board, John Chubb, Edison's chief education officer and executive vice president, explained: "Roughly, school systems spend two-thirds of every dollar at the school site and one-third away from the school site. However, we spend roughly 80 cents of every dollar at the school site instead of 66 cents. That helps pay for higher teacher salaries, greater materials, and more intensive staffing."
Richard Rothstein, an education researcher at the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, has a problem with those numbers. "That's just a silly way to calculate it," he says. "In most districts, salaries are calculated at the school site and benefits at the district level, but benefits are in fact a site expense." Rothstein argues that on average, public-school districts spend about 90 cents of each dollar on schools and 10 cents on central administration.
Marj Rolland, budget director for the Minneapolis schools, says her district does even better than that. Last year, according to Rolland, 7 percent of the district's budget went to central administration while 92 percent was spent on schools and 1 percent on liability insurance.
Asked about the discrepancy, Chubb says his comments were based on national numbers that may or may not reflect the situation in each city. "It depends on how you allocate the cost," he explains, adding that Edison operates many schools in small districts where administration costs are proportionately higher. As for Minneapolis, Chubb says he's not familiar with the district's budget and advises speaking with Edison's finance department.
Adam Feild, Edison's vice president of finance, says he also can't explain how the company plans to make a profit running the Minneapolis school. One reason, he notes, is that Edison is in the "silent period" the SEC mandates ahead of an initial public offering, and thus cannot publicly speculate about future profits. Like Chubb, Feild says he cannot compare Edison's expenditures to the school district's because he has never looked at a district budget.
Judging from the company's prospectus, no one at Edison is quite sure how the math will work out. A closer look at the document reveals that while Edison claims to have spent more than 80 percent of its money on the schools it operates, that calculation is based on its "revenues"--the tax dollars it receives from school districts. But in each of the last three years, Edison spent about 30 percent more than it took in--meaning that when all costs are calculated, non-school-site expenditures made up more than 34 percent of the firm's total budget. That's more than what Chubb says public systems spend.
In a section headed "We Have a History of Losses and Expect Losses in the Future," the prospectus states that Edison has incurred substantial deficits every year so far, for a total net loss of more than $140 million. "We have not yet demonstrated that public schools can be profitably managed by private companies," the document continues, "and we are not certain when we will become profitable, if at all."
Alex Molnar, director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, says Edison's biggest asset may be the stereotype of a fat, lazy, inefficient public-school system. That perception, he explains, leads people to believe that Edison can deliver attractive, yet expensive, features such as free computers and a longer school year on the same budget given to public schools.
"Edison rides in on the wings of the perceived evils of the bureaucratic school system," says Molnar. "But in reality Edison is probably far more top-heavy than the public schools who don't need to fly a platoon of wingtipped salesmen around the country to pitch and manage their schools."
For instance, Molnar posits, "They're always pushing the tens of millions of dollars and the three years of research that went into the Edison Design. For what? The decision to use Success for All reading, the decision to use Chicago math," he laughs, ticking off programs developed by academics and public-school educators and available to any school in the nation. (Five Minneapolis public schools use Success for All, a program that focuses on small-group learning. Chicago math, an approach that emphasizes story problems and critical thinking, is in use districtwide.)
"If it took your superintendent three years and millions of dollars to come up with the decision to give every kid a free computer, she'd be fired on the spot," Molnar concludes. "I hope [Edison] spent that money on advertising, because that is something the company is very good at."
Indeed, promotion has always been Whittle's strong suit; according to the prospectus, "effective marketing and communication efforts targeted at administrators, teachers and parents" are an integral part of the Edison plan. "[Such efforts] will yield higher levels of perceived benefits among these constituencies," the document reads, "and ultimately generate increased penetration within our market of K-12 schools."
Whittle's PR mettle is felt even in his schools' music classes. Last year students in Minneapolis belted out lyrics such as "That's a bright idea, Mr. Edison, and one day the whole world will cheer, to make a longer year...and every boy and every girl alike will have a computer of their own." In the song "Edison Medicine," children were led in a chorus of "If you got those other-school blues, hold on, brother, 'cause we've got news. If you don't like school, 'cause you think it's not cool, ya need some Edison medicine."
The company's SEC filing shows that for Whittle and his top executives, the medicine has been sweet. Each of Edison's five highest-paid officials has been rewarded with an annual salary of more than a quarter of a million dollars; in addition Schmidt received a $2 million low-interest loan, Whittle was paid $1 million for services provided to the company since 1995, and all five execs received substantial allocations of stock options. In August TheStreet.com, a highly regarded business Web site, calculated the value of the stock and concluded that after the company goes public, "Whittle's stash will be worth nearly $22 million, and Schmidt's will be worth $18.5 million."
Noting the company's heavy losses, TheStreet.com compared Whittle to the snake-oil peddler in The Music Man, calling him a "baloney-spouting" Harold Hill. "What has he done in return for the money?" the article asked. "From an outside investor's perspective, the answer is clear: Nuttin'. Bottom line? The deal's a dog, and the only investors who stand to come out ahead in it will be wily Whittle and his boola-boola buddy, Benno Schmidt."
Business Week likewise warned investors to stay away from the stock. "The fine print on Whittle's preliminary prospectus suggests that this deal deserves to flunk," concluded the magazine's September article on Edison's Wall Street debut.
Such assessments, Molnar says, should trouble communities where Edison operates schools. "Investors aren't going to keep pumping money into Edison just to be nice," he asserts. "And if Edison runs out of money, they'll just shut their doors--leaving the public school system with the pain and expense of cleaning it up."
What worries critics like Molnar more than Edison's ultimate fate, however, is how the company will go about seeking a return on shareholders' investment. For the past three years, according to the prospectus, Edison incurred school-site expenditures of 85 cents for every dollar in revenue; in order to achieve profitability, the document says (and finance vice president Feild confirms), that figure must be reduced.
One potential cost-cutting strategy is not available to Edison: Because the company manages public schools, it cannot legally "cherry-pick" its students, for example choosing only those whose parents can afford homework help and tutoring. Nationally, the firm reports, more than 60 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs, a standard measure of economic disadvantage. In Minneapolis 86 percent of its students qualify for lunch subsidies, compared with a district average of 70 percent.
Allegations have surfaced, however, that Edison has been failing to serve another group of students: those with special-education needs or disabilities. Nancy Zollers, a professor of education at Boston College, says that in the three years since Edison opened its Boston Renaissance school, 40 students with disabilities have left and 5 discrimination complaints have been filed against the company. By contrast, Zollers notes, the Boston public schools, which serve more than 13,000 special-education students, have received only 10 complaints--since 1974.
"These are not start-up problems," Zollers argues. "These are systemic problems Edison has to deal with if they're going to serve all the children of Massachusetts."
The charges might eventually land Edison in court. Mark Michelson, a partner at the Boston law firm Choate, Hall & Stewart, says he is considering a class-action lawsuit against Massachusetts for-profit schools, including two run by Edison. "It's too soon to make any predictions," the attorney cautions. "But we're seriously looking into whether students are being counseled or squeezed out of the [for-profit] charter schools."
David Dudycha, the Minneapolis school district's director of Policy and Planning Services, says that when the Edison contract was negotiated, district officials insisted on a clause designed to guarantee that the new school would have a place for special-needs kids. Edison would pay for and house a Special Programming for Elementary Needs (SPEN) room serving six to eight students diagnosed with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. "We wanted to make sure we could test the Edison model," Dudycha explains. "So we made sure the school was serving the needs of all our kids."
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.
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."
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."
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.
After looking at the district's figures, Chubb, the Edison executive vice president, deems the math results "mixed." Dave Heistad, director of research and evaluation for the Minneapolis school district, has somewhat stronger words. "It's not a pretty picture in math," says Heistad. Both men, however, agree that one year is too short to fully evaluate Edison's scores.
On one of the first days of the 1999-2000 school year, Devrae Gilreath--one of five teachers remaining at Edison from last year--methodically calls out a countdown, giving her fourth-grade students the signal to move on to a new activity. The kids, dressed in neatly pressed black-and-white school uniforms, settle into their seats and tidy up their tables.
Beverly Bjork, still serving as the start-up director for the school's first three months this year, takes over the class while Gilreath heads for a library whose shelves--nearly empty when WCCO covertly came calling a year ago--are now filled with books. In the quiet setting, she almost visibly exudes energy, arms gesturing and earrings bouncing as she talks.
"I'll be honest, it was extremely challenging here last year," Gilreath acknowledges. "Much more challenging than a Minneapolis public school. But when you're challenged, it stretches you to grow. I don't want to ever be in a job where I could do it with my eyes closed.
"I don't think the Edison Design is for everyone," she continues. "But if you follow the Edison Design, you see the positive energy and you see the kids really growing. Everybody is so energized and excited about working here this year."
Louise Sundin, the teachers' union president who dealt with a steady stream of Edison complaints last year, takes a more cautious view. "If they want to say it was all start-up problems, that's fine," Sundin says. "Now it's time to see what's due to start-up and what's systemic."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.