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2 companies vying to manage troubled schools visit 3 sites; Edison, Mosaica insist measurable reform is possible in short time; State eyes three-year pact

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Buy into Edison Schools Inc. and you will get a first-rate reading curriculum, telephones in every classroom and computers that every child takes home after second grade.

Choose Mosaica Education Inc. and you will see individualized lesson plans, Spanish in kindergarten and the study of civilizations from ancient to modern times.

The two national companies advertise competing brands of education reform. Yet their sales pitches in Maryland are at heart the same. They promise to do what the Baltimore public school system has failed to do: reverse three elementaries' long decline.

"I came away pretty confident our program would work there," said Mosaica President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Connelly after a visit last week to the three inner-city schools whose dismal test scores led the state to intervene.

"I can understand skepticism -- this is a new program," he added. "We need to prove the program can work, and we're committed to making that happen."

Richard O'Neill, Edison's vice president for development, finished the school tour equally upbeat. "I think this idea that reform takes years is bogus," he said. If selected, he predicted, Edison would be able to show progress in pupil performance "in two years."

The pressure to deliver measurable results will be great for the out-of-town, for-profit companies bidding to operate one or more of the state-targeted schools.

Maryland is the first state in the country to seize control of a group of underachieving urban schools and test whether private enterprise can succeed where government has failed.

Private management of public schools is a fast-growing business, but most companies have yet to produce consistent gains or a profit. Teachers unions routinely oppose them. Civic leaders often fear the companies' chief motivation is to make money, while parents want to see a quick school turnabout.

In Baltimore, skepticism is heightened by the painful end of its first privatization experiment.

In the mid-1990s, Education Alternatives Inc. offered to dramatically improve a dozen faltering schools. But the three-year project crashed amid deteriorating test scores and complaints that the company (now known as the Tesseract Group) was absorbing millions from the cash-strapped district.

Samuel C. Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who serves on the city school board, doubts the state's privatization venture will turn out better.

"I believe that it's a mistake," he said. Still, Stringfield acknowledged: "Bringing in fresh ideas and new direction is often desirable. If these things wind up coming to Baltimore and, if they do well, we can learn from them. Our job is to learn everything about them."

That is the hope of the Maryland school board, which will sign a three-year contract, with up to four years in possible extensions, with one or both vendors in the coming weeks. Kennedy Krieger Institute, the only local and nonprofit group, withdrew from the running because none of the three schools is in East Baltimore, where it has established ties.

Left competing are two companies from New York City: Edison, the nation's largest publicly traded education manager with 79 schools in 16 states, and Mosaica, a newcomer running eight charter schools in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

They differ in size, philosophy and style. But both believe they can better educate children at Montebello, in Northeast Baltimore, and Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton, on the west side, than the city system has done.

The schools share equally bleak statistical portraits. All three have consistently ranked at the bottom in annual tests given since 1993. All three have large numbers of pupils who cannot function at grade level. All three have to provide free lunches, counseling and other services to children from the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods.

Baltimore Democratic Del. Howard P. Rawlings is one of the supporters who argue putting the schools in private hands is worth a try.

"The reality is we've had a Baltimore-based organization running those schools, and it's not been doing well -- and that's the public school system," Rawlings said. "We can't spend time philosophizing about this while our students are continuing to lose out."

Both companies have experience in poor urban school districts. Edison operates schools in Boston and Washington. It recently won a large contract in Dallas. Mosaica is in Highland Park, Mich., and Jersey City, N.J. Both run schools in Flint, Mich.

Mosaica, however, has never taken over a public school. Nearly three-quarters of Edison's are also charter schools.

Still, one of Edison's stars is a public school in Goldsboro, N.C. Once one of the worst in North Carolina, the school recently posted a 17.3 percent overall gain on a statewide assessment test. The school is in a small Southern town, not a large East Coast city, but most pupils are African-American and poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Edison, named for Thomas Edison, was launched by H. Christopher Whittle, an entrepreneur who brought television and commercials on Channel One to classrooms across the country.

In 1992, Whittle hired former Yale University President Benno Schmidt Jr., who spent four years and $45 million developing Edison's academic program. Edison went with the tried and true: Success for All, a reading program created by Johns Hopkins, and Everyday Math, an equally respected math curriculum from the University of Chicago.

Edison doesn't eschew the kind of pronouncements that appeal to dissatisfied parents. The company says 80 percent of its students show achievement gains, and standardized and state test scores at its schools rise an average of 5 percentile points a year.

In Baltimore, O'Neill said, "I would like to see improvement in one year." If that doesn't happen, he said, "we should have our feet held to the fire."

Others say the company has not lived up to its bold promises.

A 1998 report by the American Federation of Teachers gave Edison a mixed review and accused the company of overstating student gains. More recently, the company gave up a school in Sherman, Texas, after fluctuating test scores and disputes with the district over funding.

Edison, traded on Nasdaq, lost $49.4 million last year. Company officials play that down as typical of start-ups and point to an initial public offering in November that netted $122 million.

Edison pours so much money into each new school that it has yet to make a profit. The company invests about $1.3 million in an average 500-student school in the first few years to train teachers, buy curricula and install computers and phones in all classrooms. It also purchases home computers and modems for every child beginning in third grade.

Mosaica is much smaller and less known. It was conceived in 1997 by University of Texas professor Dawn Eidelman and her husband, Gene, who believed children should receive an earlier and more comprehensive education in the humanities. The company says its students who took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills last year showed more than a year of advancement.

Reading, writing, science and math are taught using standard Scholastic, Harcourt Brace and similar textbooks. What sets Mosaica schools apart is the pioneering Paragon curriculum that teaches the development of civilizations. Right now, for example, Mosaica students are studying the Renaissance: second-graders are learning about the rise of the Italian market economy, and fifth-graders are reading literature from the French Renaissance.

"Our experience is that participation builds during the year. More and more parents show up for their kids' performances at Paragon Night, then they go back and look at their kids' portfolio and interact with the teachers," Connelly said.

Despite differing approaches, Edison and Mosaica would make some of the same changes at the schools in Baltimore.

Both would hire their own teachers, principals and staff -- and devote more time to training. Both would lengthen school days by an hour and the average 180-day academic year by at least 20 days. Both would insist that all classrooms be wired for computers -- and are bargaining with the state over who would foot the bill.

The companies will be required to show quarterly and yearly progress with reports on financial and pupil performance. The state will track the results on standardized tests. The companies will receive the average per-pupil expenditure, they say, and not a cent more.

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