The shame of San Francisco

An ideological crusade aims to close a school that's worked miracles with poor black and Latino students. Why? It's a for-profit Edison school.

Published March 29, 2001 8:19PM (EST)

In a worn leather jacket, his bald head visible above a cluster of black and Latino supporters, Edison Charter Academy principal Vincent Matthews didn't fit the profile of public-education enemy No. 1. But there he was at Tuesday night's San Francisco Board of Education meeting, a black man standing in bright-white TV lights, defending his beleaguered school from the latest and maybe ugliest charges against it: A school district investigation found "anecdotal" evidence that Edison, a public school run by for-profit Edison Schools Inc. has been purging its student body of black kids, poor kids, special-needs kids -- the toughest to educate and turn a profit on, maybe, but the very children public schools are morally and legally required to serve.

Over and over that day and into the night, Matthews had answered questions with a diplomat's patience. The San Francisco Board of Education is threatening to revoke Edison's charter if it doesn't right the wrongs the investigation identified, and the principal on the hot seat is promising to work hard to do that. "We'll work closely with the district to address its concerns," he tells reporters repeatedly. "We're taking a look at all the issues that have been raised."

But on the charge that his school discriminates against poor and black kids, anger makes Matthews laconic. "Nope. Not true." There's a long pause. Then he gets going.

"My whole background is kids of color. I've spent 15 years trying to make a difference for kids of color. This model works for them. They were not reading at this school. Now they are." Edison's opponents, he says wearily, "just make up the numbers as they go. Whatever we do to address their concerns -- so far, it hasn't made a difference. But we'll keep trying. We want to continue to teach these kids."

By the end of the night, Matthews' chances of doing that looked slim. Before a passionate crowd of 400 parents and community activists, most of them supporting the Edison experiment, the school board voted 6-1 to begin the process of revoking Edison's charter, giving the school 90 days to "cure" the ills its preliminary investigation identified, or lose its contract. "The findings are very disturbing," said board president Jill Wynns, who has fought the Edison charter since it was first proposed three years ago. "The board must make sure that every school is run according to the law."

Edison's lone supporter on the board, Mary Hernandez, says there's "almost no chance" the majority will vote to maintain the charter, no matter what happens in the next 90 days. If Edison stays in San Francisco, it will have to endure an ugly legal battle -- which the company seems ready for. Company president Chris Whittle told the New York Times the company would go to court to keep its contract. "The statistics literally speak for themselves here. None of the other 44 cities where we manage schools has ever done anything like this."

The battle over Edison is not so much about Edison's achievements as over two fundamentally different visions of public education. Even the school's critics admit that Edison has dramatically improved student achievement at the long-troubled school, for every racial group, with a combination of enriched curriculum, longer school days, intensive parent involvement and beefed up teacher training.

But to many children's advocates across the country, the fight over Edison is a last-ditch attempt to keep public education public, freely available and accountable to all children, whatever their race or background. The corporate forces behind Edison -- Channel One entrepreneur Chris Whittle, and in San Francisco, Gap company founder Donald Fisher -- have become poster boys for what critics see as a greedy rush to privatize public services in the age of George W. Bush. Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, is an Edison booster, and New York school chancellor Harold Levy is trying to turn five troubled public schools over to the for-profit chain at the behest of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

On Thursday Levy's proposal appeared headed to defeat, as parents from the local schools appeared ready to vote against turning their kids over to Edison, thanks to passionate opposition from community and minority advocates. "We hate Edison because they're going to come in here as a business," parent Kenneth Wilson told the Associated Press. "Each child is a dollar sign."

Edison, for its part, depicts its San Francisco critics as left-wing ideologues, most of them teachers-union militants and race-baiting outside agitators, trying to destroy a school that's succeeding in educating its students because it has the audacity to try to turn a profit -- the "P" word that to Edison's opponents is as out of place in a public school as pedophilia.

In fact, Edison has been a largely successful experiment in school reform, offering crucial lessons about how to help children, especially poor children of color, achieve more. It offers a window onto what the private sector can teach the public sector, and vice versa, at a relatively low cost to the district, and high benefit to most of the kids. All indications are, however, that the school board plans to close the book on this valuable lesson, for political, personal and ideological reasons that have little to do with the 500 students there.

Far from being a fat-and-happy, school-privatization juggernaut, Edison Schools Inc. is a struggling company that lost $36.6 million last year, with an eccentric, not exactly get-rich-quick business plan: Take over the worst schools in bad urban districts, the ones no one else has been able to reform, and promise you'll not just improve them, but make a profit doing it. It wasn't Chris Whittle's dream; he wanted Edison to start private schools from scratch. But the start-up costs were so daunting he went to Plan B -- rely on the burgeoning charter school movement to find schools, buildings, students and personnel, and work Edison's franchise magic in a hybrid public-private setting.

The good news for Edison is there's no shortage of schools falling into that category: Since opening up shop in 1995 they've taken on 113 schools in 44 cities. The bad news is the company has yet to make a profit, though it tells investors it will by 2004 (skeptics aren't convinced). And while some schools have thrived, others have struggled, badly, beset by community opposition from the outside and start-up woes within.

Three years ago, Edison Inc. teamed up with Bill Rojas, San Francisco's visionary, autocratic and ultimately widely-loathed superintendent, with a plan to take over the district's worst school, which, serendipitously, happened to be named Thomas Edison Elementary. The shame of San Francisco, Edison Elementary had three things going for it: A prime location between the rough but up-and-coming Mission District and mostly white Noe Valley, a reputation so bad that it could only improve, and lots of empty space for new students, since any family with another option fled Edison, dampening enrollment severely. A school built for 550 kids held barely two thirds that number. It was 86 percent black and Latino, a proportion that's virtually unchanged now.

Rojas rammed the controversial Edison proposal through the school board, over charges that teachers had been coerced to sign the charter petition -- state law requires a majority of teachers vote to become a charter school -- and that the arrangement was a sweetheart deal for the private company, letting it off the hook from paying the district administrative and overhead expenses other charters, usually nonprofit groups, had to pay the district. Both complaints still dog Edison today, but Rojas had the votes, and the school board passed his charter resolution 5-2 in late June, 1998.

That gave the local school two months -- Edison Inc. usually takes a full year -- to go from being the shame of the district to a model, for-profit charter academy by the time its doors opened again in late August. With hindsight, even Edison supporters agree that the company and its district allies moved too fast to implement the new program and enroll lots of new students, in order to get the roughly $4,200 per pupil the district agreed to pay. The school's worst mistake, everyone now agrees, was overworking its teaching staff and failing to respond to their increasing burnout and discontent until it was too late.

Of course, the fact that Edison Inc. screwed up its first attempts to reform the school actually gives it something in common with the district, which had screwed up efforts to overhaul Edison for years. The school was "reconstituted" -- the district's most drastic measure, in which all administrators and teachers are removed and new ones hired -- twice in the last two decades, with no appreciable improvement in achievement. The year before Edison took it over, the school had four principals. "There were literally kids jumping off desks, throwing things, throwing themselves out windows," says Health Caceres, who started at the blighted school the year before the charter. "It wasn't teaching, it was crowd control."

The new Edison model seemed the school's last, best hope. I visited in February of 1999, and principal Barbara Karvelis, who'd been sent in to do triage just before Edison Inc. came to the rescue and stayed on, walked me through the wide, brightly painted halls, describing the chaos she'd inherited and the order that prevailed now. The pillars of the Edison program, she explained, are a state-of-the-art curriculum and expanded staff development, in which teachers spend at least 10 extra days in intensive training sessions with Edison. A longer school day and year give teachers more time with kids, and a tightly formatted schedule makes sure they get the basics.

The whole school, from kindergarten through fifth grade, does nothing but reading, for instance, from 8:30 to 10 each morning, using the renowned Success for All reading program. Even most Edison critics acknowledge the company's curriculum is among the nation's best, thanks to the private firm's investment in research and development and its ability to put staff through intensive training to know how to teach the material. That first year, Karvelis knew kids were making huge gains even without district testing, because Edison requires schools to quiz students every few weeks to track improvement.

The veteran principal couldn't say enough good things about the new program, but Edison's enemies were already on the warpath. Some community groups had continued to dog Edison about its so-called sweetheart deal with the school district. They also insisted that the charter was a cover to rebuild the traditionally black and Latino school by attracting an influx of whites from the surrounding, gentrifying neighborhood.

"Find me a white child!" Karvelis snapped, when I asked her about the gentrification charge as we toured the classrooms together. And it was tough -- that year, Edison's white enrollment had almost tripled, but from only 10 students to 28, as the school's enrollment jumped from 379 to 517. (Today there are 23 white kids out of 503.)

It was still a heavily black and Latino school, with more than its share of behavior problems. A white fourth grader with serious emotional troubles spent most of his time on a chair outside Karvelis' office being soothed by staff, as attempts were made to reach his mother, which was reportedly a daily occurrence. A young, male African-American teacher was being trailed down the hall by several adoring black boys, as Karvelis tried to explain why they had to stay in their classroom and do their work while their teacher was away. One little boy began to cry. But mostly, order prevailed.

Karvelis didn't deny the school makeup had changed, to some extent. When Edison took it over, it went from being a school where the district automatically assigned students, to one where parents had to choose to enroll their kids. There were other parent requirements -- four meetings with teachers a year, pledges to read and monitor homework assignments.

"You definitely lost some of the absent parents, who just couldn't commit to that kind of involvement," says Heath Caceres, who taught fourth grade at Edison during the transition. (Full disclosure: Caceres is now my daughter's fifth grade teacher at a San Francisco public school across town from Edison). Some activist Latino parents left when Edison abandoned the district's traditional bilingual education program, integrating non-English speakers into regular classrooms and instead offering them an hour of instruction in Spanish.

The vast majority of the students who'd been at the school before the charter remained. But the influx of more than 100 new kids indeed changed the mix. They tended to be neighborhood kids, most of them Latinos from the Mission, whose parents lived close enough to meet parental involvement expectations.

As predicted, test scores rose that first year. But so did teacher dissatisfaction. Three-quarters left the first year, and in the second, Edison faced a near-mutiny from staff. Edison teachers worked roughly 24 more days than other San Francisco public school teachers, and at least two more hours a day, for only slightly higher wages (plus stock options and other corporate perks).

"I remember visiting the school that first year and thinking, 'I could never work here,'" says school board member Mary Hernandez, an Edison supporter. "I told Edison, 'You've got to let them have a life.' And sure, there were all the pressures and stress of a start-up, but it didn't get better the second year."

Staff also chafed at the rigid culture of Edison. "I think a lot of people felt like they were corporate clones, all having to teach the same thing at the same time," says Caceres. "People questioned the uniformity of it all. Maybe that works in Texas, or Colorado. But this is San Francisco, and people are used to being able to question, to be themselves."

"We feel like we were disposable teachers," one departing Edison teacher told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the muckraking local weekly that has covered the school and its problems intensively. "They think that they can just plug anybody in - any human thing with a pulse -- train them, and that's it."

Inexperienced Edison administrators realized the extent of the mess too late, says Mary Hernandez. "They blew it. It took them too long to get the picture. They made a big mistake. They should have responded to the teachers sooner, but they didn't, so they lost some really good teachers."

Edison's staunchest ally on the board, Hernandez gave the company notice she'd vote to pull the contract if the firm couldn't make things right with its local staff. Finally, late in the 2000 school year, Edison agreed to give its teachers an additional 10 percent raise on top of whatever the teachers' union bargained with the district, and to cut back the number of days they worked as well. Caught in the crossfire, Karvelis left as principal, and Edison hired Vincent Matthews, a respected African-American veteran who'd run a nearby middle school.

But 17 of the school's 25 teachers had already made plans to leave. "Mr. Matthews came to my house to ask me to stay, and I was torn," Caceres recalls. "He seemed like a neat guy, someone I could really learn from. But I'd signed a contract at another school. It was too late."

One year later, everyone agrees on one thing: Vince Matthews is a miracle worker, who took a political and professional debacle and turned it around. He hired 17 new teachers in under two months -- "I didn't know I'd have to do that when I took the job," he admits -- and told them to expect a tough year.

"I said it was going to be very hard. This school expects more accountability than most, plus you had all the community pressures." His boot camp worked: More than 90 percent of Edison's teachers say they want to return next year, and more than 80 percent of parents signed a petition asking the school board not to revoke the Edison Inc. charter. Now, even Edison's enemies have nothing but praise for the charismatic principal.

"I want that corporation out of there, but we want to keep Mr. Matthews," says school board member Mark Sanchez, a staunch Edison foe.

But it seems clear that if Edison's sent packing, Matthews is out of there. "I came back to the district to work at the Edison Charter Academy, and that's all I'll say," he states diplomatically.

A graduate of San Francisco public schools, the 39-year-old Matthews started out teaching at George Washington Carver Elementary in the city's mostly African-American Hunters Point district. He was principal for a year at Alvarado Elementary, not far from Edison, and then moved across San Francisco Bay and wound up principal of San Leandro's John Muir Middle School. When Edison began courting him, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I was looking for a program that put kids first, and that really worked," he said, and he was happy to take the Edison job, despite the problems he knew he'd inherited. Today, he walks a visitor to a wall outside his office that displays the school's dizzying record of test-score gains on giant charts, for everyone to see.

At every grade level, in every subject, for every ethnic group, the improvements have been impressive, in some cases astonishing. While critics say the test score gains have been accomplished by replacing the school's troubled students with a less disadvantaged mix, Edison can also prove that the black and Latino students who attended the school before the company took it over have seen their test scores jump significantly, too.

In fact, the gains may be most impressive for African-Americans and low-income kids, according to the state Department of Education's Academic Performance Index, API. Last year alone, Edison's African-American students' API increased by 25 percent -- the largest gain for any school with a significant African-American population in San Francisco.

But that doesn't satisfy Edison's hard-core detractors, who insist the school's academic gains have been made by getting rid of the most troublesome students, the majority of them low-income black kids. They charge that such students were "counseled out" -- i.e., convinced to transfer to another public school. In fact, this is a common practice in public school systems -- and before the charter many schools used to "counsel out" their worst kids and send them to Edison.

Mark Sanchez, who taught at the school years ago, before the charter, claims that "illegal things were done" at Edison. "They counseled out a lot of their problem kids, their black kids," he says. "That absolutely has everything to do with why their test scores have climbed."

Edison defenders note that the school had 154 African-American students when the company took over, and it has 152 now. Blacks make up a smaller percentage of the student body, but that's been because of an influx of Latinos. But the school's opponents insist they're not "the same black kids," in Sanchez's words, that Edison had before the charter. The school district contends that a third of the African-American kids enrolled at Edison when the private company took over have transferred out, compared with about one-tenth of the original Latino students.

"They may have the same number of black kids, but the black kids who are there now have higher social and cultural capital than the black kids who were there when I taught at Edison," Sanchez contends. "It's just not the same black kids who were there before."

When asked how to contact African-American parents who were driven out of Edison, Sanchez admits, "I don't have any names." He sends me to the district administrator in charge of the investigation into Edison, Roger Tom, who didn't return repeated phone calls. At the school board hearing Tuesday night, one black former Edison parent testified that African-American kids had been subjected to an undefined regimen of "psychological and physical abuse" at the school; then the parent launched into a diatribe against one particular teacher, and had to be interrupted because board policy prohibits public complaints against individuals.

Nothing makes Matthews angrier than the charge that his school intentionally "counseled out" its troublesome African-American students. "I would respectfully beg to disagree," he says, with a look of contempt, from behind wireless glasses, that belies his calm words. He questions how the district knows that one-third of the original black student population at Edison left the school, and notes that even if it's true -- which he disputes -- the criticism ignores the gentrification of all of San Francisco over the last three years, when the city's dot-com explosion and rising real estate prices drove the poor of every race out of town. Plus, four of San Francisco's housing projects were torn down in recent years, scattering residents while the sites were rebuilt.

But by far the most important factor in Edison's changing demographics is the overhaul of the district's own school admissions policy, after a federal judge in 1999 threw out the desegregation agreement that had imposed a Byzantine system of racial "caps" and quotas, to make sure no school enrolled more than 45 percent of any one racial group, and every school had at least four different populations represented within it. (Edison, it should be noted, never had anything to do with selecting the students who attend the school, before or after the charter; school admissions are the job of central administration.)

And though the desegregation agreement poured millions of dollars into improving low-achieving, traditionally black schools, many black parents were dismayed to find their kids couldn't go there, since the schools quickly reached their "cap" on black enrollment. "When I taught at Carver, we had African-American parents come in outraged they couldn't get their kids in -- they were being bused over to Edison," Matthews recalls.

Not surprisingly, in the two years since the desegregation agreement was thrown out, the African-American population at such schools has skyrocketed. At Carver, this year's kindergarten class is 63 percent black; at Dr. Charles Drew Elementary in the mostly black Bayview District, it's 74 percent black; at the nearby Twenty-first Century Academy, eight of 10 kindergarteners are black.

Meanwhile, other schools have seen their black population decline sharply. Just a few blocks from Edison, for instance, Fairmount Elementary used to be 42 percent black; it's now only 13 percent black, losing more than 120 of its African-American students in the last few years and replacing them with neighborhood kids, most of them Latino. A few blocks in the other direction, Alvarado Elementary has lost half its black population in recent years; in the Mission, Bryant Elementary has lost 70 percent of its black students just since 1997.

Viewed against that backdrop, Edison's success in keeping its black population steady is actually a huge victory. Nobody denies that the school has managed to enroll more middle-class students, of every race, though Edison is still a high-poverty school. But complaining about Edison's success in attracting some economic diversity to the school is "absurdity," says the Rev. Floyd Flake, the former Democratic congressman and school-choice proponent who went to work for Edison Schools Inc. last year.

"I've traveled the country trying to get people to see the connections between high-quality schools and improving poor neighborhoods," says Flake, a longtime proponent of community development. "Now you have a school where people of all races want to send their kids, including black parents. We're not driving African-American parents away. They want the same thing for their kids as everybody else."

Flake went to work for Edison Inc., he says, "because nobody's voting for more property taxes. Nobody's voting to get more money for the schools. The money has to come from somewhere, and here it is, coming from a private company. I think we need to look at all available options for improving our schools. In San Francisco, you have a school where nobody wanted to send their kids, and now it's thriving. If the results are there, why would you complain? All this focus on so-called 'profits' versus results for kids is absurd."

Critics also charge that Edison gets vastly more funding from the district than other high-poverty, low-achieving schools. But the charge seems false. Edison gets roughly $4,200 per pupil, while the Twenty-first Century Academy gets almost $7,000, and Drew and Carver get more than $5,000, thanks to state and federal funding and special programs for poor and disadvantaged students. And yes, Edison gets philanthropic support from the Gap's Don Fisher and his foundation, plus Edison's own investment. But my daughter's public school enjoys a PTA fundraising colossus, plus high-income, well-educated parents giving time, money and ideas to make it work.

Despite the volume of criticism from Edison opponents, lots of San Franciscans agree with Flake -- even some teachers who left Edison during its start-up woes. Yvette Fagan, an Edison head teacher who left last year, told the San Francisco Chronicle she thinks it's "sad" the board is trying to revoke the Edison contract. "Whether teachers or school officials want to put their heads in the sand, private education or privatization is affecting all schools," she said. "We should be learning from it."

Heath Caceres agrees. "I don't really care if somebody's gonna make a profit as long as we're doing right by our kids," he says. And despite its initial troubles, he thinks Edison is on the right track. "The district will never find a better curriculum," he notes (he uses Edison's math texts to supplement the district's curriculum in my daughter's classroom today), "and nobody can train teachers to implement a high-quality curriculum better than Edison can."

Are there still problems at Edison? Absolutely. Too many kids are still struggling in school, and the district may well be having trouble, as it contends, getting all the financial data it needs from the private firm. (I couldn't ask Edison Inc., because nobody in the company's administration returned my calls after three days of pestering.)

But these problems hardly seem to merit the district's emergency attempt to cancel the school's charter. Dozens of San Francisco schools urgently need to be overhauled, so badly are they educating mostly poor, minority kids whose parents don't have the resources to demand better. Yet the school board has found time for countless meetings and investigations into a once-troubled school that has turned things around dramatically.

In the end, it's impossible not to conclude that the district's attempt to revoke the school's charter -- despite its sudden fixation on Edison's so-called contract violations -- is a political vendetta, nothing more or less. The firm's most powerful defender, Superintendent Bill Rojas, left the district two years ago, and when Edison opponents won a school board majority last November, the charter's days were numbered immediately. "This is an attempt to purge the district of any trace of Bill Rojas," says Mary Hernandez. "And it's really sad."

Mark Sanchez disagrees. He admits he would have voted against the charter, had he been on the board three years ago, "based on ideology. But this is based on their performance. I want the corporation out of there...I think it's ruthless, it's out for a big profit, and it's using us to get into other cities. If they can make it in liberal San Francisco..." he trails off.

"If we could take them to court, I would, but they'd beat us, they've got so much money," Sanchez continues. He's hoping, when the board revokes its charter, "they'll just back out and leave. If we have to spend extra money on Edison then, so be it. But the corporation in my mind has to go. I won't bend on that aspect."

Sanchez is unlikely to get his wish that Edison walk away. Even if the board revokes its charter at the end of its 90-day warning period, Edison is expected to appeal to the State Board of Education, which can award charters itself. The firm would then have to petition the school board to let it keep the building, which is unlikely given the current political situation. The battle could eventually wind up in the courts.

The bottom line on Edison is this: The many millions of dollars the district poured into failing schools under the desegregation agreement did not create one single school that showed the rapid achievement gains Edison has. Anybody who knows anything about school reform will admit it's almost unheard of to see the level of improvement Edison has achieved in two years.

"The fact is, it's really a miracle," says Vince Matthews. "Nobody's ever seen anything like this before. Instead of trying to learn from it, the district is trying to shut it down. You have a school that's never worked for African-American and Latino kids, and now it is, and the district wants to take it away from them. I just find it so sad."

By Joan Walsh

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