Edison Awarded 2 More Philadelphia Schools

By Robert Strauss
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 16, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- Maxcine Collier had been principal of the 400-student Anderson Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia for five years when, in 2001, she was told that a for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc., was going to take over the school's management from the Philadelphia School District.

Parents and teachers were apprehensive, she said. But more than three-quarters of Anderson's students were performing below grade level, according to Pennsylvania state testing standards. The school, in a neighborhood that borders suburban Upper Darby, housed many special-education students from other parts of the city.

"There was no cohesiveness. Many of the children were from elsewhere, and they didn't bond, which hurts education, especially in urban settings," Collier said. "We knew something had to be done better."

Three years later, Collier said, Edison's curriculum, particularly in math and writing, has doubled the number of children who reach state proficiency levels and has unified her teachers. "We still have a long way to go, but I can see already we are on the right track," she said.

Last month, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, which runs the nation's fifth-largest school district, awarded contracts to Edison to operate two more public schools, in addition to the 20 it gave the company three years ago. The 20 schools were considered among the worst performing elementary and middle schools in the city -- many with less than 10 percent of students at grade level -- and the district was seeking ideas on how to improve them.

Though six other organizations, including Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, were given contracts to manage schools, it is Edison that has taken the lead and come under the most scrutiny as the third academic year of Philadelphia's school "privatization" trial ends next month. Edison, which manages five charter schools in the District of Columbia, has the largest number of Philadelphia schools under its supervision and is the only provider to be offered more by the commission this year.

It has been loudest at proclaiming its purported successes and, perhaps only because it is the largest, taken the brunt of the criticism. It almost went out of business in 2001 when Wall Street traders dropped its stock to less than $1, contending that Edison could not survive managing a mere 20 schools. Edison has since been taken private and asserts that it is solvent.

"I think a lot of people in public education around the country have been watching us," said Chris Whittle, Edison's chief executive. "It is in Philadelphia where the movement of outside management of schools is most advanced, and Edison is in the lead here. It is our most high-profile commitment ever, and we accept the criticism and praise that will come."

The privatization movement in Philadelphia was an outgrowth of an agreement between then-Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, and Mayor John F. Street, a Democrat, that the state would offer more funding for the city's schools if it had more control over how they were run. The state appointed the School Reform Commission, which essentially runs the district, with James Nevels, an influential attorney and head of an investment firm, as its chairman.

Critics, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the unionized employees in the district, complained that Edison would reassign teachers willy-nilly. After much wrangling, Edison did not get the exclusive contract it wanted, and the teachers union continued to represent teachers and principals. Though many experienced teachers transferred out of the Edison schools, all the schools began that first year fully staffed.

"There was a concern at the time that Edison wouldn't be solvent, but I am a pension manager and did the due diligence and determined they would be viable," Nevels said. "It has turned out marvelous, too. There was a lot of outcry at the beginning, which isn't all bad. But when we awarded the two schools to Edison at the April meeting, there was nary a peep."

Nevels and Richard Barth, Edison's manager in Philadelphia, said that based on a standardized state test, grade-level proficiency in the schools Edison manages has increased from 6 percent to 21 percent of students in the first two years of the contract.


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