Edison Schools, Inc., reinvents city’s largest charter school

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Students of Chicago International Charter School

Students of Chicago International Charter School

After a couple false starts, Chicago’s experiment with for-profit management of public schools now rests in the hands of Edison Schools, Inc., which was hired last year to take over the Longwood campus of Chicago International Charter School following the ouster of another for- profit company.

Like its non-profit cousins, Edison has had start-up problems at Longwood, and its initial test scores, compared with those at demographically similar schools and at nearby schools, are less than glowing. Yet, its some 1,300 seats –about 1,050 for elementary students and 250 for high school students —are in high demand.

Last year, the school’s waiting list topped 2,000, according to Assistant Principal Brian Beck, who says he has had parents beg him to enroll their children. According to the School Board, the list now stands at more than 500, the most for any Chicago charter. Located on the grounds of the shuttered Longwood Academy in the Washington Heights community, Longwood draws students from all over the South Side. Nearly all are African American, and 72 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Students are chosen by lottery.

The Chicago Charter School Foundation was organized by leaders of the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Foundation. The latter provides scholarships for inner-city youth to attend private day or boarding schools.

The three other Chicago International campuses are managed by American Quality Schools, a non-profit founded by former state schools superintendent Michael Bakalis.

Responsible for 113 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia, Edison is the nation’s largest for-profit school management company.

Private school feel

Like their peers in other Edison schools, Longwood students spend a lot of time in class, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., early August through late June. The lengthened school day and year, along with block scheduling, mean students spend more time on each subject. In the primary grades (K-3), 90 minutes a day are devoted to reading, which is taught using “Success for All” and supplemented with two other structured reading programs. In grades 4 through 12, reading is taught using Wilson Reading. Students who fall behind in math are assigned an extra period. All students get instruction in two “specials” per day, art, music, Spanish or gym.

Edison places a heavy emphasis on technology. Three Internet-connected I-MACs sit in every classroom, and Edison lends every teacher a laptop. This month, Edison will be handing out home computers to every Longwood family with a student in the 3rd through 12th grades.

Whether it’s the historic campus, the heavy emphasis on discipline or the tidy students (dress shirts, dress shoes, ties for boys), Longwood feels like a private school. During a Catalyst visit, 7th-graders in a social studies class discussed their recent field trip to a mosque. The teacher didn’t have to stop once to tell a student to turn around, pay attention or stop talking.

Upstairs, seniors played a heated game of jeopardy. The category was British literature, and winners got a night without homework. With few exceptions, the curriculum and pace of instruction are set by Edison at the national level. “The only thing that’s different is the structure of the building,” says academy director Traci Troutman, who’s worked in three Edison schools in the last five years and transferred to Longwood for a promotion.

Longwood has made a few departures from Edison’s national curriculum. At the request of the charter holder, the school uses Saxon Math, a computation-intensive math program, rather than Everyday Math, a more hands-on approach developed at the University of Chicago. Beck says school administrators also tinker with the order in which material is presented so that it better matches state standardized tests.

Middle managers

Lisa Lester, a 4th-grade teacher in her first year at Longwood, came from CPS’s Beasley Magnet School. She says that at Longwood, she has fewer students, more advanced students and a smaller range of abilities in her class. At Longwood, her roster is 28; at Beasley, it was 33, and that included seven special education kids, compared with just one at Longwood. Lester also taught at Terrell Elementary, down the block from Beasley in the Robert Taylor Homes area.

She says that in her CPS assignments, “I felt nobody cared about the kids. Here everybody is completely focused on one thing: How can we get the kids to perform better on the test?” Lester says teaching at Longwood is demanding: “You’re constantly thinking, going, working.” In CPS, she says, “You can slack off, and no one knows.”

Edison has infused the administration of its schools with corporate-style middle management positions to support and push teachers. In addition to a principal and classroom teachers, Longwood has an assistant principal, academy directors (essentially, principals for particular grade levels) and lead teachers. The positions also provide opportunities for promotion and higher pay. Teacher pay at Longwood is based on the Chicago Teachers Union scale but is adjusted upward to account for the longer school day and year, according to Troutman. Both teachers and administrators can earn bonuses for good performance.

Don Tyer, academy director for Longwood’s high school division, says there is a strong emphasis on professionalism and “vertical advancement.” For example, he was hired at the end of last year as a history teacher. Tyer puts the average age of Longwood teachers at somewhere between 28 and 35.

Longwood has suffered high staff turnover, however. Of the 58 teachers on board a year ago September, only 21 returned for this school year, according to Greg Richmond, who oversees charters for CPS. Some left of their own accord, and others “were not in our vision,” says Principal Robert Lang, Longwood’s second principal under Edison management and its fifth over all.

Lang says that many of the teachers who did not return were holdovers from the previous management firm who couldn’t get used to Edison’s demanding work schedule. “The biggest thing was the longer day and the short summer,” says Lang. “They tried it and said, No, it’s not for them.”

Different from neighbors

The regular CPS schools closest to Longwood enroll fewer students, about 300 each, and have varying levels of low-income students—86 percent at Wacker, 76 percent at Wendell Green and just 45 percent at Vanderpoel Magnet. Principals of these schools say that their charter neighbor has not prompted any change at their schools.

In brief Catalyst visits, the CPS schools seemed less well outfitted and a bit less disciplined. They also seemed more open to outside scrutiny. While the public school principals were open to unscheduled visits, Longwood would entertain only scheduled visits in the company of the marketing director of the Chicago Charter School Foundation.

During a recent science experiment at Wendell Green, 8th-graders had to work in groups of nine because there weren’t enough beaker jars for them to work in smaller groups. Students talked and joked during the experiment, at one point using drinking straws, intended for stirring a blue substance into water, to blow bubbles into the solution.

This year, the school’s 8th-grade class has 37 students– at Longwood the limit is 25 in lower grades and 28 in upper grades. “That’s just a few over the norm,” reports Principal Vera Green, who says she has little control over class size since she must accept all students in Green’s attendance area and has to get permission from CPS to hire additional teachers.

Wendell Green currently has no art or music teacher. The School Board would pay for a half- time music teacher, but Green has not filled the position. There are two computers in the 3rd- grade classroom, but only one works. Six weeks into the school year, the class still hasn’t visited either of the school’s two small computer labs, which are slated to be made Internet-ready soon.

Still, parents interviewed by Catalyst seem happy with Green. The mother of a 2nd-grader says, “Her teachers take a lot of time with her.”

Many Green parents attended Green themselves. “These parents know us,” says 8th-grade teacher Shirley England, who’s taught at the school since it opened 27 years ago. “They feel comfortable here.”

At Longwood, Tyer says lack of equipment or materials is never an issue. “Everything that we need we have,” says Tyer, who taught in a North Side CPS high school for three years in the mid-90s. He adds that a streamlined purchasing process makes as much of a difference as does more money.

At Wacker School, Principal Valerie Bratton estimates she spends $1,000 per year on teacher training. Down the street at Vanderpoel, Principal Helen Wooten says she squeezes her staff development in before school.

Beck says that Longwood’s budget includes roughly $200,000 each year for teacher training.

“We’ve invested a significant amount in every school we go into, including Longwood,” says Edison Senior Vice President Gaynor McCown, putting the average pre-opening amount at $1.5 million.

“The benefit of a for-profit company is that they have access to investors and start-up capital,” says Ben Lindquist, the charter foundation’s marketing director.

But investors eventually will be looking for returns, which must come from public education dollars. Edison’s McCown says that making a profit “is not about taking money out of the classroom. It’s about efficiencies based on economies of scale.” So far, Edison is not making a profit. The company reported a $37 million loss for its last fiscal year, down from a loss of $49 million the prior year.

This fiscal year, the Chicago Charter School Foundation is slated to receive $6.8 million in state and local tax dollars to run Longwood. The foundation will keep $180,000 of that for its own administrative costs, withhold another $566,000 for rent, utilities and improvements to the building, and pass on the remaining $6.1 million to Edison. After spending $4.7 million of that on everything from teacher salaries to textbooks to custodians, and then discounting $820,000 for depreciation and interest on loans, about $520,00 is budgeted to stay with Edison central.

The Chicago Charter School Foundation, also has been asking for donations. “Though we receive enough government funding to sustain operation, we cannot continue rehabilitating our facilities or develop a full complement of educational programs without outside contributions,” President James Murphy wrote in the foundation’s June 2000 newsletter.

Test scores not great

Despite advantages over its neighbors in resources and flexibility, Longwood’s test scores last year—30 percent at or above average in reading–fell short of those at Wacker and were roughly comparable to those at Green. Vanderpoel, whose percentage of low-income students is far smaller, did far better on test scores. Further, about 25 percent of Longwood students transferred out last year.

Chicago Charter School Foundation officials say that last year’s numbers mean little, because the school was shaken by the change in management. “When we have students who have been in the [Edison] system five or six years, I think that’s when it’s truly going to be an accurate measure of Edison’s student achievement,” says Lindquist.

Outside Longwood one recent morning, A.G. Magee describes himself as an involved parent and says he’s happy with Longwood, where he has three children. “The math that my daughter had in 8th grade [in CPS], my son had in 5th grade here,” he says. But Magee acknowledges that factors other than academics also played a role in his decision. “Distance plays a big part in where your children go to school,” he says. The Magee family lives about a mile away.

Other parents mention the convenience of having children go to one school regardless of their ages, and hours that better matched their work schedules.

The Chicago Charter School Foundation is pleased enough with Edison that it is considering adding another campus and putting Edison in charge. Says Lindquist. “A lot of what we’re looking at over the course of this year is evaluating different sites, different possibilities around Chicago, and potentially opening another site with Edison.”