End of experiment

Alonso wants to cancel Edison's contract at two schools

March 22, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

They started from the lowest possible point, with reading proficiency rates in the single digits and dismal learning environments. Ever since three Baltimore elementary schools were put under the auspices of a for-profit company nearly nine years ago, they have gotten money and resources above and beyond what other city schools receive to try to turn themselves around.

Today, the schools' climates are vastly improved under the management of New York-based EdisonLearning, but only one of the three is meeting academic targets.

As Edison's contract runs out, city schools chief Andres Alonso is asking the Board of Education to sever ties with the company at Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton elementaries.

"These are two schools that are really struggling," said Laura Weeldreyer, Alonso's deputy chief of staff. "We've made a big investment in them, and we have yet to see the payoff."

The two were always considered bigger challenges than Montebello Elementary/Middle because of their locations in extremely impoverished neighborhoods. Alonso recommends renegotiating a contract for Montebello, but he wants to pay Edison the same amount per pupil as the city's charter schools receive, not more than everyone else.

The company's contract for the three schools, which collectively serve 1,800 students, is worth $16.9 million this year. Edison keeps about 12 percent as overhead.

When the board approves Alonso's proposed budget Tuesday, it will essentially vote on Edison's future at the schools because money would be distributed accordingly.

Edison officials, along with employees and parents at Templeton and Gilmor, are fighting to retain the contract. On display in a Templeton hallway are letters from third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to Alonso.

The company is protesting that the system evaluated the schools' performance for the past two years, not over the span of Edison's involvement.

In Maryland's only takeover of individual schools, Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick seized control of Montebello, Gilmor and Templeton in 2000 and hired Edison to manage them. In 2007, Grasmick returned control to the city and the school board voted to keep Edison through this year.

Marlaina Palmeri, senior vice president and regional education officer for Edison, says the board's vote in 2007 came so late that most employees had found jobs elsewhere, and the three schools had a 75 percent staff turnover. "These two years were rough years for us, but look at where we started," she said.

In 2001, 1 percent of Templeton students passed the state reading test. "We had just terrible morale - everybody take all your sick days kind of environment," said Kristine Rose, a social worker who has worked at Templeton for 14 years.

Grasmick, who faced resistance from city officials for her decision and a lawsuit from the teachers union, said all three schools "were just at rock bottom."

"I don't know how many people involved in this know what those schools looked like before," Grasmick said. "It was remarkable, the transition. ... [Edison] changed the environment of the schools. It certainly engaged parents in a way they had never been engaged before."

By 2004, the state was using a different standardized test, the Maryland School Assessments. On that measure, Templeton's reading proficiency rate was 54 percent. Last year, it was 53 percent.

In evaluating schools, Alonso says he's looking for growth over time, and the system overall has been progressing at a much faster rate than Templeton and Gilmor despite the extra investment. Math scores at both schools declined last year - to 50 percent passing at Templeton and 34 percent at Gilmor.

A 2005 report by the nonprofit Abell Foundation found that the three were making progress, but the cost exceeded that of other city schools with bigger jumps in test scores.

The system gives the Edison schools an additional $123 per student for technology, plus more funding for prekindergarten, and it outsources for special education. Figures from Edison indicate that, if their schools were funded like others in the city, they'd lose more than $500 per pupil.

Since Alonso became CEO of the city schools nearly two years ago, he has decentralized the system to give principals greater autonomy in exchange for accountability. If the school board does not renew the Edison contract, he said, Templeton and Gilmor's principals would be free to use their discretionary money to retain the company.

But Gilmor Principal Ledonnis Hernandez said she likely wouldn't be able to. Edison pays for a dean of students to manage student behavior, a character education coordinator, a student support manager for parent outreach and referrals for struggling students, a school operations manager and a technology manager. It funds classroom aides and security in a building that's subject to burglaries.

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