The Learning Curve

Earnest eggheads came to Texas with an idea that for-profit schools can save public education. So far, it ain't working.

All together, Whittle managed to raise $30 million in new capital by March 1995.

By the time The Edison Project actually started managing schools later in 1995, it had burned through some $75 million in development funds, and the scale of its operations was much more modest than the grand visions originally concocted at Whittle's Tennessee estate.

Though Whittle had dreamed of starting out with 100 schools in the program, in its first year the company landed contracts at only four schools. There was one each in Boston; Wichita, Kansas; and Mount Clemens, Michigan.

And then there was Washington Elementary School in Sherman, Texas.

Bob Denton, the superintendent of the Sherman Independent School District, first heard about The Edison Project at an educator's convention in 1993, when he ran into Bill Kirby. Whittle had hired Kirby, a former Texas Education Agency commissioner, to drum up clients for the project.

Denton had been in Sherman for only one year; he had come from the district in Dripping Springs. He was looking for ways to fire up the slow-moving SISD, and The Edison Project seemed an opportunity to do that.

"This was a real old, stodgy district. Change didn't come easily," recalls Phil Garrett, executive director of planning and budgeting for the SISD.

Denton liked the idea of The Edison Project, but didn't want to force it down the throats of his new administration. So, at first, Denton simply passed out written information on the project to all six elementary school principals in his district. Three of them responded immediately: They wanted no part of it. Denton pushed no further.

But principals at the elementary schools in the town's wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods were receptive.

It was Denton's call to put the program in the poorest neighborhood, at Washington Elementary. "It just kind of sifted out the needs at Washington," he recalls. The school had high student turnover, and its achievement test scores were slipping.

The Edison Project managers, who were eager to sign up as many schools as possible for their first year of operation, willingly let the SISD superintendent make the decision. "The truth is, they were desperate to get some schools open," recalls SISD administrator Garrett.

The SISD agreed to hand over $2.1 million a year--about $4,500 per student--in state and local tax revenues to The Edison Project.

Even in those early days, the town had its skeptics. John Blystone, a SISD school-board member who has since resigned, voted against signing the contract with the company.

Blystone says he wanted someone else to be the guinea pig. "My position was, 'Let's wait and see. They'll be interested in us in a year,'" he recalls.

But the rest of the board approved the deal at an April 1995 meeting, and The Edison Project got its franchise in Sherman.

All was happy at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new school the next August. The Edison Project managers became Sherman's heroes. Whittle and Schmidt accepted keys to the city, and the national press trundled to Sherman to record the moment. Washington Elementary was going to be "one of the most high-tech schools in America," Schmidt told a reporter from The New York Times.

But behind the scenes, the company was already racing to keep up with its plans. The hurried nature of the school's opening created stress from the outset. "They were literally sweeping the floor as the parents walked in," says Gail Hoogendoorn, who was then a teacher of bilingual education and recently was named the new principal of the school.

Signing up with Sherman so late, The Edison Project managers had been left with only four months to interview, hire, and prepare teachers for the August opening. (Sherman schools this year start later, in September, due to districtwide building renovations.)

Rushed, The Edison Project managers also got news late about increased enrollment. In those first weeks, they realized the school had at least 25 more students than expected, says Manuel Rivera, The Edison Project's director of schools, who directly supervises the principals. The school had to install a portable classroom and hire five more teaching assistants.

As Washington Elementary's organizational problems mounted, Rivera, a 20-year veteran of the well-respected Rochester, New York, school district, began to come down to the school so often--two or three times a month--that he had time to form and reform his opinions about the most efficient route from the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Sherman.

But for Linda K. McDougal, a fourth-grade teacher, The Edison Project managers were not coming often enough. The school wasn't functioning effectively, she says, and the managers weren't correcting the problems. Even the simplest of matters, she says, became impossible in the chaotic environment. A month after classes began, McDougal recalls, her class still didn't have the books it needed, because the principal hadn't distributed them.

When Chris Whittle himself observed McDougal's class in September 1995, the veteran teacher recalls, he complimented her on her math lesson. It was exactly how The Edison Project's chosen program, known as the University of Chicago math system because of its origin, was supposed to be taught, McDougal recalls Whittle telling her. "I said, 'That wasn't Chicago math, that was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants math because we don't have the books.'"

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