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Edison in Chester Upland



For those of you interested in Edison Schools - an article from NEA Today.

Dedicated Educators, Dead-End Management
Spending cuts and poor leadership by Edison Schools, Inc. compound the problems of a struggling Pennsylvania district.
NEA Today, February 2003
http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0302/news14.html

The first time your state legislators ooh and aah over the idea of for-profit school management, suggest a study tour of Pennsylvania's 5,300-student Chester Upland district, where Edison Schools, Inc.--the nation's "leading private manager of public schools"--is shaping the best possible arguments against privatization.

NEA state and local affiliate officials charge that Edison, which has run nine of this high-poverty district's 10 public schools since 2000, is generating huge problems through spending cutbacks and poor educational leadership.

Quite simply, "we believe that during Edison's management of Chester Upland, the environment for teaching and learning has deteriorated, not improved," says Gloria Zoranski, president of the 481-member Chester Upland Education Association (CUEA).

Edison is struggling financially--its share price plunged from a high of $38 in 2001 to $1.55 at the beginning of December. And Thomas Persing, chair of a state-appointed control board overseeing Chester Upland, recently acknowledged in an education journal that Edison's "financial difficulties," along with Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, lawsuits by investors, and other adverse developments "have compounded Edison's problems and increased our concern about our relationship with Edison."

Yet the state of Pennsylvania, which directly controls Chester Upland and 11 other struggling districts under its "Education Empowerment Act," hasn't paid attention. Last autumn, the Chester Upland control board doubled the value of its existing contract with Edison, to more than $4 million this school year, while a city/state control board handed Edison a five-year, $60 million contract to run 20 "low-performing" Philadelphia schools.

For all its troubles, Edison clearly has friends among privatizers in public office--it manages public schools in 24 states--and strong prospects under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

ESEA, which permits private management of public schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" for five consecutive years, offers a "tremendous opportunity for Edison to leverage its experience and expertise on behalf of districts and states seeking solutions," Edison executive Jim Howland recently gushed to a business reporter.

Obstacles to Achievement

It will be mighty hard, however, to leverage anything from the Chester Upland experience. In November, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that student scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test declined in nine Chester Upland schools, "with the best performance in the district at Toby Farms Elementary, the one [school] not run by Edison."

Factors behind Chester Upland's sinking scores include:

* A breakdown in student discipline. When Edison assumed control of Chester Upland, it saved money by closing the district's grade 7-12 alternative school, leaving schools no option other than suspensions--and accepting students straight out of incarceration.

Worse, the heads of school "leadership teams" must both teach class and handle the discipline problems of kids from tough urban neighborhoods.

CUEA President Zoranksi, a business teacher at Chester High School, charges that "four schools are out of control" and that the district's security force is poorly staffed and undertrained--leading to unchecked gang activity and assaults on students and teachers.

* Cutbacks in staff, programs, and supplies. CUEA has successfully fought teacher layoffs but has been unable stop Edison from firing 15 technical support staffers and more than 100 paraeducators--or from gutting middle school career, industrial arts, and home economics programs.

On top of these cutbacks, teachers report shortages of everything from copier paper to instructional materials, forcing them to improvise and spend more out of pocket. "This year, several schools opened their doors without textbooks," Zoranski points out, "and Columbus, our largest elementary, opened without any teaching materials."

Edison's penny pinching extends even to teacher technology--the company has not fulfilled its promise to issue a laptop computer to every Chester Upland teacher--and to site-level purchasing. "Until last year, we had a business support manager in every school to order supplies," notes Zoranski. "Now those positions are gone. In September and October, teachers had no direction to get what they needed for class. Blame goes back and forth and nothing gets to the solution stage."

Another reason supply decisions are in short supply: Edison gives Chester Upland principals bonuses that hinge on both student performance and how much is not spent out of a school's budget.

A Bright Spot: Teacher Dedication

Edison may not show respect for Chester Upland teachers, but the district's new superintendent does. "I firmly believe that quality staff is still present today in our district," Dr. Dexter Davis declared in his 2002-03 school opening address. "It will be my responsibility to provide the administrators and teachers with the support and materials to get the job done."

"Dr. Davis gives it his best shot, and he's been willing to work with the Association," notes Zoranksi. "The minute he became superintendent, he said he wanted to communicate with us and never wanted to stop."

The superintendent knows dedication when he sees it. In the face of indiscipline and the "hardships of where these children come from," an amazing number of Chester Upland teachers "still come to work each day and spend their own money on the kids," stresses the CUEA president. "They're highly motivated, even though it's a tough place to work.

"Our teachers put up with verbal abuse from students and lack of support from Edison administrators and still manage to teach, to get students to learn," Zoranksi concludes. "They're excited about presenting new lessons and they love passing knowledge on to students."

--Dave Winans

CUEA President Gloria Zoranski can be contacted at Glo6@hotmail.com.

George Sheridan