Training camp begins today for teachers taking part in Baltimore's new experiment with school privatization, an effort to improve student achievement at the three lowest-performing schools in Maryland.
At "Camp Edison," a weeklong program at Towson University organized by Edison Schools, the New York-based company hired to run the failing elementary schools, teachers and administrators will be introduced to a new curriculum and will begin steeping themselves in the "Edison way."
"This is the first time that a state, in a sense, has assumed this responsibility, and it's not been a decision by a local system," said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state schools superintendent. "We have no model. We're creating a model. And there's a lot at stake."
Edison began moving in July 1 at Montebello, Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton elementaries, 3 1/2 months after the state school board approved a five-year contract with the for-profit company.
Preparations are well under way to have the buildings ready for the first day of classes Sept. 5.
"It has to look like what we call the Edison brand," said Dwight D. Jones, vice president for school operations at Edison, who is overseeing the initial steps locally. "It's going to be clean. It's going to be well lit. It's going to be organized a certain way. ... We leave nothing to chance."
Pupils at the three schools seem to be headed for an experience unlike what has come before, one in which computers are a given, reading instruction is treated like scripture and the program includes music, foreign language and physical education.
By the time Edison's contract is up, the company expects to have invested an average of $1.2 million in each of the three schools and to guarantee that all children will read at grade level by the second grade.
Ten percent or fewer of third-and fifth-graders in each of the three schools scored satisfactorily on state reading exams last year.
The school day will be longer by an hour, and the school year will be at least 20 days longer. Pupils will be grouped according to skill rather than grade level. And reading instruction will never be considered optional.
Reading "is never interrupted in a school," said Jones. "If we can build strong readers, we believe we can build strong learners across the system."
Edison, the country's largest publicly traded school-management company, operates 79 public schools with more than 37,000 students in 16 states.
In Baltimore, 1,600 children will become part of the Edison experiment.
"Their enthusiasm is just absolutely contagious," said Grasmick, "and their sense of 'This can be done. We're going to have the best school ever' - it's just such a positive attitude.
"I'm very hopeful that these schools, which were the lowest-performing schools in the entire state, will begin to offer children an educational opportunity that they have not had before."
Edison will receive $7,462 per pupil, the same as other city schools. As part of its contract, the company will be required to meet strict guidelines concerning such things as pupil achievement and attendance, and parent and community involvement.
At least 80 percent of the schools' teachers must have professional certification. That is not usually a demand made of Edison in other school districts, but Baltimore has the highest percentage of provisional, or uncertified, teachers in the state.
Teacher vacancies remain
More than a dozen teacher vacancies, in such areas as physical education and Spanish, must be filled, Jones said. Most of the hiring is handled by the principals, who were chosen by Edison from about 40 applicants.
Sarah Horsey joined Montebello from Pimlico Elementary, where, as principal, she was credited with substantial gains in pupils' scores on standardized tests. JoAnn Cason, most recently principal at Carter G. Woodson Elementary, is heading Gilmor. The new principal at Furman Templeton, Darryl Bonds, arrived from Wichita, Kan., and has experience in Baltimore County schools.
Critics say Edison has skimmed the best principals and teachers from schools that have begun to show academic improvement. Eight staff members are following Horsey to Montebello, and five are following Cason to Gilmor.
In all, 47 employees formerly with the city will be working for Edison, said Kenneth Kuyawa of the school system's employment and placement division. Some resigned or retired, and others are taking one-year leaves of absence.
Jones said successful principals improve schools from the foundation up, not from the top down.
"They build capacity in a school, so that a school doesn't live or die with them," he said. "We didn't take anyone from anybody. The folks came to us.
"Sometimes, good, strong leaders are hard to find, and there are folks who will follow them around. I think that's kind of a complementary thing when you have a good principal."
Newly hired teachers will arrive at Towson University this afternoon for orientation. During the week, they will be introduced to the Success For All reading curriculum, which was developed at the Johns Hopkins University, and a math program developed through the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project.
They will also learn how to create an Edison "learning environment," in which pupils' schoolwork is hung on "walls that talk" and the "zero noise" sign is two raised fingers.
Training in discipline
Next month, teachers and staff members will receive training from the Massachusetts-based May Institute on disciplining pupils with behavior problems.
Kevin Parson, an assistant principal at Gilmor, said privatizing some city schools will bring a measure of accountability that has been lacking and noted that Edison will lose its job in Baltimore if it doesn't succeed.
Jones said, "We're going to create great schools because we have to."
At Montebello, Horsey has been supervising cleaning and painting crews and telephone technicians installing computer wiring in every classroom. She has also been working with parents, teachers and members of the support staff, some of whom are volunteering their time, to prepare pupils for the start of school.
'Passports to success'
Montebello aims to become something of a locomotive. On the first day, children will be issued "passports to success" by teachers dressed as train conductors.
"Our theme is 'Come aboard the Montebello Success Express,'" Horsey said.
"We're going to show that the Edison model and a committed staff will excel, because we don't believe in failure. Because something should have happened a long time ago with these kids."