By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Washington Elementary is housed in an old beige brick building in a neighborhood near downtown Sherman, a blue-collar town of about 35,000 near the Oklahoma border. It's in a part of the city where nearly every house needs a paint job, roofs sag, and the occasional worn sofa rests on a porch. But one cannot enter Washington without concluding it's a decent and caring place for its students, who have become more and more diverse in recent years. After all, the school is 28 percent Hispanic and 24 percent black.
Like most other places of young learning, drawings hang on the walls and a general sense of happiness abounds. So it's difficult to believe the school is a prime exhibit in the battle being fought locally and nationally over the future of public education -- a conflict spilling down Interstate 75 and pouring into Dallas.
Five years ago, Washington became the nation's first school to be managed by the for-profit management firm Edison Schools Inc., which brought in its special curriculum and design. School officials hired Edison as a way to build enthusiasm for a districtwide reform effort. Since 1996, Edison has also run one-third of Sherman's Dillingham Intermediate school, which has experienced fewer problems than Washington Elementary -- though test-score data for the school's Edison section has never been compiled.
Now Edison is being chased out by school officials and townsfolk who say the company has botched the job of educating Washington's little ones, even as some of the school's parents and teachers insist Edison is doing a good job and demand the company stay.
On a recent morning, Chuck Holliday, the school's new principal, takes a visitor to a reading class where children are reading stories from picture books aloud together. On a wall hangs a sign featuring the "Edison Excellence Pledge," the company's in-house recitation. "We are friendly and kind to others, thoughtful, honest and fair," it reads. "We make every day count by working and continuing to learn." The children, Holliday says, recite this covenant during an assembly each morning after the Pledge of Allegiance.
Upstairs, Lila Honts teaches fourth-graders how to play xylophones. A veteran educator of 32 years, Honts came to Edison for its emphasis on arts and music. She used to shuttle between schools in Sherman to teach weekly arts classes to students, but Edison allows her to stay in one school and teach students up to three days a week.
"The time I've been teaching over the years, arts had been devalued," she says. "I'm a staunch supporter of Edison."
A few doors down, Ginger Box, a third-grade world languages instructor, teaches children Mexican folk songs. The children are also learning names of food items and articles of clothing in Spanish. "They learn it quickly," Box says. "They are energetic, and they like learning Spanish."
In the computer lab, computers Edison loans to parents of Washington's students fill a wall. They are older-model Apples with slow modems that are a little shabbier than those at other Sherman schools -- a disparity district officials have been quick to point out. John Traux, the school's computer guru, explains that Washington is on the company's "Cycle One" schedule. Had Edison's contract at Washington been renewed, it would have received new iMacs.
Last year, Chuck Holliday moved from Hickman, Kentucky, where he also served as a principal, to Sherman after being impressed by the company. "A lot of the parents of students here do want the school to stay with Edison," he insists. One of them is Cathy Wrenshaw, whose son attended Washington and whose daughter is in kindergarten there. She's upset Edison is leaving and thinks the company got a bad rap. "[District officials] used everything under the sun to say this isn't working, but it [is]," she says. "People just don't want to admit that somebody came in and changed things around."
But district officials enumerate a plethora of reasons why Edison must get out of Dodge by the end of the school year. They insist there has been little growth in test scores in Edison's schools, even though districtwide scores have soared. There have also been charges that Edison mismanaged the school by failing at such tasks as ensuring that math materials arrived by the first day of school. District officials also estimate that contracting with Edison cost the district $1 million in added expenses a year; it's one of myriad disputes over financing. On top of that, the company sparked a local furor when Edison officials arrived from DFW Airport in chauffeured Lincoln Town Cars.
"There's an enormous gap between what the company says it will do and what they really do," says Philip Garrett, Sherman Independent School District's assistant superintendent for administration and instruction.
Edison took the hint. As it heralded its new Dallas deal and contract renewals in four other cities, the company recently announced it wouldn't compete to renew its Sherman "partnership." Sherman officials agreed last week to let the contract expire in June.
The company didn't even wait a few months to defend its tenure at a school board meeting on whether to renew the contract, citing a lack of cooperation from Sherman officials. "A good marriage is like a good partnership," says Manny Rivera, Edison's co-head of development. "Partners can work things out no matter how far apart they seem. Without that, it doesn't make sense to go forward."