2 companies vying to manage troubled schools visit 3 sites

Edison, Mosaica insist measurable reform is possible in short time

State eyes three-year pact

February 15, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Buy into Edison Schools Inc. and you will get a first-rate reading curriculum, telephones in every classroom and computers that every child takes home after second grade.

Choose Mosaica Education Inc. and you will see individualized lesson plans, Spanish in kindergarten and the study of civilizations from ancient to modern times.

The two national companies advertise competing brands of education reform. Yet their sales pitches in Maryland are at heart the same. They promise to do what the Baltimore public school system has failed to do: reverse three elementaries' long decline.

"I came away pretty confident our program would work there," said Mosaica President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Connelly after a visit last week to the three inner-city schools whose dismal test scores led the state to intervene.

"I can understand skepticism -- this is a new program," he added. "We need to prove the program can work, and we're committed to making that happen."

Richard O'Neill, Edison's vice president for development, finished the school tour equally upbeat. "I think this idea that reform takes years is bogus," he said. If selected, he predicted, Edison would be able to show progress in pupil performance "in two years."

The pressure to deliver measurable results will be great for the out-of-town, for-profit companies bidding to operate one or more of the state-targeted schools.

Maryland is the first state in the country to seize control of a group of underachieving urban schools and test whether private enterprise can succeed where government has failed.

Private management of public schools is a fast-growing business, but most companies have yet to produce consistent gains or a profit. Teachers unions routinely oppose them. Civic leaders often fear the companies' chief motivation is to make money, while parents want to see a quick school turnabout.

In Baltimore, skepticism is heightened by the painful end of its first privatization experiment.

In the mid-1990s, Education Alternatives Inc. offered to dramatically improve a dozen faltering schools. But the three-year project crashed amid deteriorating test scores and complaints that the company (now known as the Tesseract Group) was absorbing millions from the cash-strapped district.

Samuel C. Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who serves on the city school board, doubts the state's privatization venture will turn out better.

"I believe that it's a mistake," he said. Still, Stringfield acknowledged: "Bringing in fresh ideas and new direction is often desirable. If these things wind up coming to Baltimore and, if they do well, we can learn from them. Our job is to learn everything about them."

That is the hope of the Maryland school board, which will sign a three-year contract, with up to four years in possible extensions, with one or both vendors in the coming weeks. Kennedy Krieger Institute, the only local and nonprofit group, withdrew from the running because none of the three schools is in East Baltimore, where it has established ties.

Left competing are two companies from New York City: Edison, the nation's largest publicly traded education manager with 79 schools in 16 states, and Mosaica, a newcomer running eight charter schools in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

They differ in size, philosophy and style. But both believe they can better educate children at Montebello, in Northeast Baltimore, and Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton, on the west side, than the city system has done.

The schools share equally bleak statistical portraits. All three have consistently ranked at the bottom in annual tests given since 1993. All three have large numbers of pupils who cannot function at grade level. All three have to provide free lunches, counseling and other services to children from the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods.

Baltimore Democratic Del. Howard P. Rawlings is one of the supporters who argue putting the schools in private hands is worth a try.

"The reality is we've had a Baltimore-based organization running those schools, and it's not been doing well -- and that's the public school system," Rawlings said. "We can't spend time philosophizing about this while our students are continuing to lose out."

Both companies have experience in poor urban school districts. Edison operates schools in Boston and Washington. It recently won a large contract in Dallas. Mosaica is in Highland Park, Mich., and Jersey City, N.J. Both run schools in Flint, Mich.

Mosaica, however, has never taken over a public school. Nearly three-quarters of Edison's are also charter schools.

Still, one of Edison's stars is a public school in Goldsboro, N.C. Once one of the worst in North Carolina, the school recently posted a 17.3 percent overall gain on a statewide assessment test. The school is in a small Southern town, not a large East Coast city, but most pupils are African-American and poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

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