Rough waters

Like their counterparts in the Dallas area, Preston Hollow Elementary School educators were excited to be selected in 1995 as a model site for the new, much-ballyhooed Voyager Expanded Learning Inc. after-school program.

Instead of going home to empty houses when the regular school day ended, or killing time in programs that amount to little more than baby-sitting, Preston Hollow students whose parents were willing to pay $40 a week for Voyager programs received a stimulating, innovative extension of their educational day.

In eight-week "learning adventures," the students studied earth science and honed their observational skills by scouring the playground for bugs and rocks. They learned the fundamentals of business by creating their own company to sell teddy bears, and they studied space travel. Preston Hollow teachers taught the three-hour daily classes after being trained by Voyager, which provided detailed curricula and all the needed resources, such as books and videotapes.

When Voyager tried to expand its program across the city and country this school year, Preston Hollow signed on for a second year. But then the school abruptly dropped the program in November, citing a number of problems the teachers had with Voyager, including a reduction in the teachers' pay, the removal of computers Voyager had given the school the year before, and a general dissatisfaction with the level of support they were getting from the company.

Preston Hollow is one of a number of schools that parted company with Voyager, citing reasons such as limited enrollment, inability of students to afford the costly program, and teacher burnout. These are just the latest hurdles facing the Dallas-based company that has courted controversy since its inception a year and a half ago.

Voyager is the brainchild of 54-year-old Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best, who amassed a fortune through the ownership of several companies including The Spirit Group, which sells cheerleading supplies. Looking for a way to do something more meaningful than simply making money, Best says he turned his attention to public education. "The vitality and inventiveness of the country's entrepreneurs, which made this country great, had been denied to the educational system," he says.

After researching the needs of public education, Best, in conjunction with several local educators he hired, conceived of Voyager as a way to solve two pressing problems--lengthening students' learning time, and providing worthwhile after-school care to an ever-increasing number of children whose mothers work outside the home.

Best corralled 15 investors, who together donated more than $3.5 million to help him launch his for-profit venture. It is the only company of its kind in the country, Best says, although he expects to face competition in the future. The company has 30 employees, many of whom work on developing the expanding curriculum, which even the program's detractors claim is both creative and challenging.

Voyager's first brush with controversy came last winter, when the company lured Vernon Johnson away from his $125,000-a-year post as Richardson Independent School District superintendent to be Voyager's chief operating officer--at almost double his previous salary. Johnson had previously introduced the Voyager program in four Richardson elementary schools that wound up participating in the pilot program.

Then last August, just weeks before the new school year was to begin, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Chad Woolery abruptly announced his resignation to take the job as president of the newly formed Voyager Foundation, a nonprofit entity dedicated to raising funds for schools and children who cannot afford the program. Shortly before Woolery resigned, he had signed an $87,000 DISD contract with Voyager that would have helped subsidize the program at eight Dallas schools. Amid charges of a conflict of interest, the school board declined to ratify the contract.

In the aftermath of those controversies, state legislators and child-care groups began criticizing the company for continuing to recruit some of the local school districts' best principals, using public facilities at no

charge, and trying to make a profit off of educating youth.
The perpetually upbeat Best dismisses his critics as being uninformed. "We're trying to better educate our youth," he says. "No one went into this expecting to make a lot of money."

Whether he can make money at all is the question. To date, the company has lost $4.5 million. And with monthly losses of $180,000, the tide doesn't seem to be turning, though Best predicts the company will break even by the end of next year. Regardless, he says he and his backers have agreed "to stick it out for 10 years."

If Voyager is not making money, it is making strides--having significantly increased the number of schools who carry the program over the last year. But exactly how many schools Voyager is in is difficult to determine.

Last February, Best told the Dallas Observer he expected his company to have contracts with 200 schools nationwide during the 1996-'97 school year. By September, he told the Dallas Morning News his programs were in 150 schools and served 5,000 children. He now says those numbers were predictions. Last week, two company spokesmen said that Voyager is in 87 schools in several states, including Washington and New Mexico, and serves 2,400 students. However, Best claims that the 2,400 students are being served at "close to" 100 schools.

"We're adding two schools a week and expect to have 500 by next year," Best adds optimistically. "We're not losing schools. We've closed a few that started late and didn't have enough enrollment. But our struggle is to meet the demand of schools who want it."

Best admits that Voyager's growth is definitely slower than anticipated--a result of private enterprise having to come to grips with the realities of public education.

Cabell Elementary in Northwest Dallas, which serves primarily blue-collar neighborhoods, was one of the schools that wanted Voyager, but did not have enough students who could afford it. Cabell was part of the pilot program last year, but never had more than 19 students enrolled. The program was also plagued by unforeseen staffing problems, says principal Theresa Parker. The teacher who ran the program initially got promoted and left the school, and the next teacher suffered from health problems. Parker says she cannot even think about using the program again for several years, because school boundary changes will make it difficult for her to know the precise demographics of her student population.

Yale Elementary in Richardson had enough students to support the program, but delivering the innovative Voyager curriculum was so labor-intensive, the teachers felt burned out from working an additional three hours every day.

The problems that beset the Voyager program at Preston Hollow were so severe that some teachers say they would not work with the company again.

When Preston Hollow was part of the Voyager pilot program, the company paid the teachers $40 a day to administer the program between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Though the instruction did not start until 4 p.m.--after the students had a snack and some organized recreation--teachers used that half-hour to prepare. An additional teacher was paid as an on-site director to collect fees, distribute materials, organize the lessons, and deal with the parents.

The first problem arose this year when Voyager cut the teachers' salary to $32 a day after deciding not to pay for the half-hour of preparation time. The company also decided that the program did not need an on-site director. The teacher who held that position continued to do the job for free.

"The teachers felt they were getting rooked," says Preston Hollow principal Phillip Jackson.

There were other problems as well. Voyager does not pay for a second teacher until the first class reaches a capacity of 36 students, which is a lot for one teacher to handle, especially when the kids' ages range from 6 to 12. But the biggest disappointment for the teachers occurred when Voyager removed two computers it had provided for Preston Hollow the year before.

"One of the big incentives for me and the teachers of working with Voyager was the extra technology, the use of the computers in each room," says Jackson.

Voyager officials give different reasons for removing computers from its programs. Barbara Nichols, senior vice president for development, says "the computers posed a security issue. In the older schools they posed impossible wiring issues, and maintaining them in schools without someone there all the time was also a problem. We were afraid they would absorb all our resources."

Best says, however, that the problem was that the computers were introduced without a technology curriculum to accompany them, so they weren't being used to their best advantage. "Mostly the kids were playing games on them."

Preston Hollow educators say Voyager was disappointed when the school pulled out. "They didn't want to see us leave," Jackson says. "We just didn't have the teachers who would work with them."

Preston Hollow may have given up on Voyager, but not on an enriching after-school program. The school recently formed a nonprofit corporation to run its own after-school program, charging the same amount as Voyager, providing similarly creative courses, and paying the teachers more than they made this year. The program brings in enough money to provide the children with snacks--with Voyager the school had to pay for them--and the teachers can put the profit back into the program to buy additional resources.

"It's a lot of work," says Pat Umphress, a second-grade teacher at Preston Hollow who directs the after-school program. "But we could all probably do it on our own.

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Ann Zimmerman