in Wichita, Kans.-Alyce Newell of Wichita, Kan., says the material her fourth-grade twin sons Harry and Tim brought home from the regular public school in 1994 "seemed too simple, like the stuff I did in kindergarten." Teachers assured her the boys were reading well, but their test scores were well below grade level. The next year Mrs. Newell sent Harry and Tim to fifth grade at Dodge-Edison, a public school newly taken over by Edison Schools Inc., a private company. By year's end the boys were reading at seventh- and eighth-grade levels. "They wanted to be at school. The new atmosphere was sparking some buttons in the boys and they were excited," said Mrs. Newell. That year Dodge-Edison scores on standardized exams increased 16 percentiles in math and five in reading. The Newells' story is becoming increasingly common. After opening its first schools in 1995, Edison is now the largest private manager of public schools in the country, with 108 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia. About 20 for-profit companies manage 280 of the 80,000 public schools nationwide. Three of the largest education management firms include Beacon Education Management of Westborough, Mass., and two Michigan-based firms, Leona Group of East Lansing and National Heritage Academies of Dearborn. Edison schools serve 59,000 students, with about half its schools operated in partnership with a local school board. Mrs. Newell's boys are now at Jardine-Edison, a middle school where test scores have risen five percentiles in reading and 12 in math since Edison took it over in 1996. Overall, after Edison takes over, 85 percent of schools improve their test scores, and the average gain per student is five percentiles on national standardized tests. Jardine-Edison, located in an open field just past the railroads and heavy industrial areas on the south side of Wichita, looks like a typical public school with brick walls and tall windows. But inside, when the bell rings at 10:55 a.m., classes of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders dressed in khaki, navy, and white uniforms march into the broad corridors and assemble in single file. Teachers give brief instructions in soft voices and then escort their silent students to the next class. "The students go everywhere in straight lines," said assistant principal Stephanie Stovall. Edison schools, designed to operate at public-school funding levels, are divided into "houses" of 100-180 students each. A team of four to six educators teaches each "house" and remains with the same group of students for two or three years. Though Edison schools give admissions preference to neighborhood children, they are open to all students. But expectations are high. Parents must sign a contract agreeing to support school rules, discipline, and dress code. They must also push for regular student attendance and attend at least three of four parent/ teacher/student conferences and one parent advisory council meeting during the school year. Teachers also work with each student's parents to set quarterly learning goals. Parents on the Leadership Council help hire staff, plan for the school year, and serve on tutoring and mentoring committees. Nine of every 10 Jardine families attend the meetings, even though most of them are poor. (This despite the claim of some educrats that poor parents don't want to be involved in their children's education.) Five of every six Jardine students qualify for federal lunch programs that are open to those with incomes below $31,543 for a family of four. Overall, at Edison schools 65 percent of students-twice the national average-qualify. Privately managed public schools are pressuring the public system by providing another education choice to parents who could otherwise not afford it. Keith Wilson, now principal of Jardine-Edison, says he was skeptical and fearful of Edison's "kid agenda" when the company first proposed its ideas in Wichita seven years ago. Mr. Wilson, then a principal in the public system, "saw [Edison] as competition, with more accountability and commitment of time and energy. And there is insecurity when someone from outside is scrutinizing your work." He was "blown away" when three of his best teachers applied to the new Dodge-Edison elementary school, explaining, "we can be doing more to challenge and meet the needs of kids." Twenty-five families left his school to try Edison. Watching closely for a year convinced Mr. Wilson that "Edison was delivering on their promise and making a difference for kids, for parents, and for staff." So when he was offered the opportunity to lead Jardine-Edison, he jumped at the chance.
-Linda Shrewsbury is a World Journalism Institute fellow