Climate changes at Edison schools in Philadelphia

Students adjusting to new signs, books, rules, teaching techniques

October 10, 2002|By Sara Rimer | Sara Rimer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA - Joyce Henderson's fifth-graders at Morton McMichael Elementary School had been in a lively discussion about getting along. But now they were restless.

One boy kept sneaking a harmonica out of his pocket and playing it whenever the teacher turned her back. A girl with long braids was taunting two boys sitting near her. A fight was about to erupt between two other girls. The noise level was rising.

Henderson, a 28-year veteran of the Philadelphia schools, remained calm. She put her right hand in the air, with two fingers raised together. It took a minute or so, but eventually the fifth-graders all made the same gesture. The room got quiet.

"This is an Edison zero noise signal," Henderson told her class. "It is done at Edison schools throughout the country."

It was a few weeks into a year unlike any other at Morton McMichael. Edison Schools, a private company with headquarters in New York City, has taken over the management of McMichael, as well as 19 other deeply troubled public schools here. Everything is different: the signs on the walls, the books, the rules, the principal, the way teachers teach.

It is all part of the largest educational experiment with private management ever undertaken by an American school district.

With all the debate among politicians and educators about Edison - and the unease on Wall Street over the company's falling stock prices - it is the teachers who are carrying out this experiment. Before the year had even begun, a number of those who worked at schools taken over by Edison had elected to take jobs elsewhere.

Most teachers stay

At McMichael, though, most of the 35 teachers chose to stay at the 32-year-old building where all of the nearly 600 children, grades kindergarten through eight, are poor enough to qualify for free lunches and where few are considered proficient in mathematics and reading.

"We know these kids," said Henderson, who has spent 11 years at McMichael, as a special education teacher and learning coordinator. "We know what their potential is. We want to see if Edison works."

This year, the start of school has been more chaotic than usual. In addition to her own 24 fifth-graders, Henderson was handling five fifth-graders from a class that had lost its teacher.

The teacher, who has multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane, had gone to the hospital the week before after a student pushed her down. The teacher was not seriously injured, the principal, Janice I. Solkov said, but she was not yet ready to return. Solkov was scrambling to find a substitute.

A new sixth-grade teacher, a woman in her 20s, had quit on her second day. "She did all her student-teaching in the suburbs," Solkov said. "She wasn't prepared for a city school."

Solkov, who has spent 30 years in education, gave up a comfortable administrative job in a suburban school district to be part of the Philadelphia experiment. "I wanted to be where the action is," she said.

On the first day of school, with the governor, school officials and members of the news media all touring a balloon-festooned McMichael, she was not able to contain her excitement. Now, she said, "I'm much more realistic."

Edison has not delivered on everything Solkov had planned. It is still unclear how many computers will be available. The inside of the school has not been painted, and it needs it. Some important secretarial and managerial positions have not been filled.

A spokesman for Edison, Adam Tucker, said the company had not been able to deliver all that it promised because the district gave Edison only an additional $880 per pupil, far less than the $1,500 extra per pupil Edison had hoped for. Still, Solkov said, Edison has supplied plenty of new books and other learning materials. Teachers are being allotted an unheard of - in Philadelphia - two periods a day for professional development and personal time. The students are having art and music for the first time in years. The chatter in the teachers lounge is that the students are better behaved than last year.

In Room 314

In Room 314, Henderson has spent much of her time on Edison's guidelines for the first few weeks of school. She has been introducing her students to the company's core values: wisdom, justice, courage, compassion, hope, respect, responsibility, integrity. They are written on signs at the front of the room - and all over the building. While Edison emphasizes achievement through structured, cooperative teaching and a focus on reading, the core values are intended to develop character and create discipline and order.

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