Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Edison Project Scores - and Stumbles - in Boston

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Edison Project Scores - and Stumbles - in Boston

Article excerpt

The evidence from Boston Renaissance suggests that the Edison Project is struggling fitfully to learn how to run its schools, encountering more obstacles than recent headlines imply, Ms. Farber concludes.

Kylee Jones, at 5 years of age, was suspended from Boston Renaissance Charter School 20 times for a total of 49 days. The year was 1995-96, Kylee's first year of school and the first year of operation for Boston Renaissance, the nation's largest charter school and perhaps its most prominent experiment in public education for a profit.

Boston Renaissance is one of four public schools launched in 1995 by the Edison Project, a for-profit company headed by entrepreneur Christopher Whittle and C. Benno Schmidt, Jr., former president of Yale University. Since entering the school marketplace, the company has grown exponentially. This year Edison is operating 25 public schools in eight states.

To Edison Project officials, Kylee Jones was emblematic of the unforeseen challenges that saddled Boston Renaissance as it started operation in 1995.

"They took us by storm!" Barbara Wager, the school's first principal, recalled, referring to scores of seemingly uncontrollable children who showed up on opening day. "We had kindergarten kids who came running in and ripping stuff off the walls, absolutely beyond what anyone would expect in a kindergarten."

But to many parents and teachers, as well as to Boston advocates for children, Kylee's frequent suspensions from kindergarten demonstrated the Edison Project's lack of experience with inner-city children and illustrated practices, born of the school's tumultuous start-up, that aggravated children's problems instead of solving them.

"The people at Edison didn't understand what they were coming into, and they didn't do their homework," said Jose Alicea, a parent representative who had been elected to the school's advisory panel. He made these comments shortly before resigning his voluntary post in the spring of 1997. Alicea, a consultant in school desegregation policy who holds a doctorate in administration and social policy planning from Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, was stunned by what seemed to him to be the company's extreme naivete regarding Boston's desegregation history, and he deduced from it an arrogant, careless attitude on the part of school officials toward inner-city families. "They don't have a clue to handling people from nonmainstream, nonprivileged backgrounds," he said.

Edison Project officials note that the company chose Wager as principal precisely because of her nationally recognized success as the leader of an inner-city school in Rochester, New York.

The performance of the Edison Project in Boston and its other schools has been closely watched for 2 1/2 years by the American media. News editors have focused on test scores, which are easy to report and newsworthy. The New York Times, USA Today, and Time have each published stories on significant gains Edison students across the country have made on reading and math achievement tests. Indeed, the trend at Boston Renassiance is unmistakably positive. The children who entered Boston Renaissance in 1995 scored a year or so behind the national average in reading and math; they ended their second year scoring at or above the national average on the Metropolitan Achievement Tests. But test scores tell only part of the story.

When a reporter takes a look behind the schoolhouse doors, a contradictory and complicated story emerges. For several months at the end of 1996 and in the spring of 1997, supported by a fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, I made regular visits to Boston Renaissance Charter School. I discovered a school with problems as vexing as they are anywhere. Faculty members were at war with one another over the school's mission, teachers were struggling for classroom control, and a small, vocal group of parents was moving to oust the principal. …

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