City to regain control of 3 elementary schools, but for-profit manager might remain in charge

Edison might stay on

March 27, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Seven years ago, Baltimore school officials reacted angrily when the state education department seized control of three failing elementary schools and turned them over to a for-profit management company.

But as soon as tonight, as the state returns the three elementaries to local control, the city school board is expected to vote to continue the partnership with Edison Schools.

City officials said they were swayed by significant improvements in the culture of the three schools, Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor, particularly increased parent involvement.

The schools' performance on state tests remains mixed, though all three have improved academically under Edison's leadership. Some critics have questioned the high cost of operating the three schools compared with other city elementaries.

About 250 parents, students and staff from the schools appeared at a school board meeting in January to urge officials to keep Edison in charge after the company's state contract expires in June. In response to parent demand, the three schools all have added sixth-grade classes. Today, they collectively enroll about 2,100 students, up from 1,500 when Edison took over in 2000.

Montebello now meets federal and state standards for progress, but Gilmor continues to be included on a list of the state's lowest-performing schools. Templeton students met standards on state tests in 2004 and 2005, but not in 2006, when more than half the school's students failed in reading.

"Praise the Lord," was Rose Ellison's reaction yesterday to the news that interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston is recommending a new contract with Edison. Ellison has sent six grandchildren through Montebello over the years. Before Edison took over the school, she said, "It was just full of chaos up here. ... Now they are teaching them values, respect."

At the time of the Edison takeover, the state had the power to step in to order outside management of the schools, which were among the city's worst. It contracted with the nation's largest school management company, which oversees about 100 schools across the nation and runs after-school and summer school programs at dozens of others. Edison runs 20 schools in Philadelphia and a handful in Washington, but no others in Maryland.

Maryland State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says she is returning control of the three Baltimore schools to the city because of changes in state and federal law. Though Grasmick has high praise for Edison's work, she left it up to the city school board to decide whether to keep the company on after June.

A September 2005 report by the nonprofit Abell Foundation showed that it was costing more to run Baltimore's three Edison schools than other city schools that had seen even bigger jumps in test scores. The report found that Edison retained the equivalent of $1,425 for each child it serves, and its administrative costs per pupil were nearly twice those of the city school system.

Edison's funding will change under the contract before the city school board, but it is not clear by how much.

School board documents say the contract - worth $17 million a year for three years - would amount to a cut of nearly $1,000 per student. Initially, Edison would get $7,232 per student, but the board documents say that Edison would receive the same amount per pupil as the city's charter schools, public schools that operate independently.

Though the Edison schools operate similarly to charter schools, they must be designated differently because state law prohibits charters from being run by for-profit companies.

The Abell study showed that Edison received $20.1 million, or $9,370 per pupil, to operate the three schools during the 2004-2005 school year. Despite the projected funding cut under the new contract, the school system would provide several services, such as payroll, that the company currently pays for. Teachers and aides would join the system's union and be transferred to its benefits plan.

In addition, the school board is poised to renew and expand a state contract with Kennedy Krieger Institute to provide special education services at the schools. The state has agreed to pay 65 percent of the cost of that contract, worth $2.5 million annually.

Officials said yesterday that they intend for the school board to vote on the Edison contract at tonight's meeting, but the vote could be postponed if they have not yet reached an agreement on some final details.

Boston, who visited all three schools in the past few months, said she was impressed with the academic initiatives she saw there. The schools have daily teacher training, monthly student assessments and extensive use of technology.

In reading, the three schools' pass rates in third and fifth grades have increased an average of 14.6 percentage points since 2003, when the state began using a new standardized test. In math, the average increase is 20 percentage points.

For the past seven years, Montebello, Templeton and Gilmor operated in isolation from other city schools. They made their own decisions about whether to close during snowstorms. The state even reported their test scores as though they were a separate school district.

City school officials complained that the money to operate the three schools came out of their budget, but they had no control over how it was spent.sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Edison pass rates

Edison schools' pass rates on the Maryland School Assessments have increased since 2003, but Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor did not meet state standards in 2006. Below are the pass rates for third- and fifth-grade reading in 2003 and 2006.

2003 2006

Montebello 51.2 % 67.4 %

Templeton 23.8% 45.3 %

Gilmor 37.6 % 43.6 %

Source: Baltimore public school system

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