Making progress a little at a time

Schools: Edison schools show how little things make a difference in school reform.

May 27, 2001

SOMETIMES, the details speak volumes about an issue, while the big picture says little or nothing about what's really going on.

Don't buy it? Look at the news this week that three privately operated Baltimore elementaries did pretty well on national reading and math exams.

Yes, it's important that these three schools - all chronic under-performers before they were turned over to Edison Schools last year - seem to have found their footing and are headed in the proper direction.

And yes, state educators are right to do a little chest-thumping now about their decision to privatize the schools, which had inspired snide catcalls from city school officials. (Let's keep in mind, though, that these schools still have a long way to go before anyone's beating down their doors to enroll their children.)

But the scores themselves don't tell you as much about Edison's success as this detail buried amid the hubbub: More than 700 Edison parents signed a petition begging the State Board of Education to add sixth-grade classes to the three elementaries, so their children could stay through middle school.

That's right: 700.

To get an idea of how difficult it is to get that many parents involved in any city school decision, consider this statistic: When the city school board announced it would close nine schools (with 1,500 students) by 2003, a whopping 250 people showed up to discuss the plans. That included teachers, principals and some hangers-on, too.

Edison - which in a short time got nearly three times that many parents interested in an issue affecting only three schools - is doing something right.

They're somehow engaging parents in their children's education, which makes the teachers' jobs easier, the students' experiences richer, and favorable outcomes - like high attendance rates and test scores - a lot more achievable. If they could get 700 to sign a petition, imagine how many they have reading to children, helping with homework or just keeping tabs on their children's school careers.

That's why they had good news to report this week. It's why they'll probably be back before the state board next year with even more impressive feats to tell. Parents have been the great missing link in city school reform for more than a decade; in one year, Edison has filled that gap at three schools, and seen it pay serious dividends.

The 700-parent petition tells us a lot about something else, too: the sorry state of city middle schools. Edison's parents want their kids to stay at Edison schools because they know city middle schools won't provide as valuable an experience.

No one - not even city schools chief Carmen Russo - disputes their point. The question is whether this reminder of the middle school mess - only the latest, not the first - will spur officials to real action.

Maybe they need to take a page from Edison's book. They're getting the details right. And they know that's the key to help improve the big picture in their schools.

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