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School firm seeks growth


The private operator of three failing Baltimore elementaries wants to extend its reach by adding sixth grade at each school, a step the for-profit company says has been prompted by staunch support from parents.

New York-based Edison Schools has asked to amend its five-year contract with the state to include sixth-grade pupils at Furman L. Templeton, Gilmor and Montebello, where the company took over in July amid some criticism from city education officials.

The arrangement, if approved, would affect about 260 pupils who normally would enroll in regular city middle schools next academic year.

"I think it's a pretty good testimonial to what parents have seen in the schools and how they feel about the way their children are progressing under the Edison program, that they would want their children to remain in that setting," said Darryl Bonds, principal at Furman L. Templeton, which has 55 fifth-graders.

Edison, the country's largest for-profit school management company, concedes that it has no test scores yet to show that its Baltimore pupils have improved this year, and its success in other states is a matter of debate.

But the Maryland Education Department's liaison to Edison said parents - particularly those at Montebello, which enrolls 125 fifth-graders - have been pushing for months for a sixth-grade program.

"They just were happy to see this renewed sense of order and this very structured curriculum," said Rhona S. Fisher. "The parents see these differences and don't feel their kids are ready to move on to a middle school environment."

Last night, a few hundred parents, teachers and children, mostly from Montebello, attended a rally at that school to support the proposed expansion. The gymnasium was decorated with colorful posters and letters written by fifth-graders explaining why they want to stay another year.

One read in part: "I learned more this year and I would like to have a sixth grade here. I am not ready for a big middle school."

Fifth-graders told the crowd how much they have learned, and how they enjoy taking Spanish and playing musical instruments.

Keith Bradford said his 9-year-old son, Adrian, a Gilmor third-grader, is excited about attending school in a way he wasn't last year. He said Adrian has perfect attendance and always wears his school uniform. Bradford wants his son to be able to stay put through the sixth grade.

State officials were not available yesterday to discuss Edison's proposal. Associate state superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer referred questions to Valerie V. Cloutier, the state education department's legal adviser, who did not return a call seeking comment.

Rich O'Neill, a regional vice president for Edison, said state officials are "very open to this proposal."

"I would say that from a conceptual standpoint the State Department of Education has clearly signed off on it," he said.

City school board members have criticized publicly the state's contract with Edison, claiming that the closely watched experiment in privatization is unfair because the three schools are receiving a higher per-pupil expenditure from the state.

Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer for the city school system, said yesterday through a spokeswoman that she had not reviewed Edison's proposal to expand and couldn't comment on it.

None of the three middle schools that would receive fifth-graders from Edison's schools meets state standards for academics or attendance.

Fifth-graders at Furman Templeton are currently slated to attend Booker T. Washington Middle School, where 7.3 percent of eighth-graders read at a satisfactory level on the most recent state exam and where 31.5 percent missed more than 20 school days last year.

Fifth-graders from Montebello are to attend Hamilton Middle, where 6.5 percent of eighth-graders read at a satisfactory level. Gilmor's fifth-graders are to attend Harlem Park Community Center, where 4.8 percent of those tested read satisfactorily.

Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor have space for a sixth-grade program, but Montebello would require portable classrooms.

Edison operates 113 schools in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and serves about 57,000 students. Most of its schools are elementaries, but it has managed middle schools. The company launched its first high school last year in Washington.

"I think everybody's trying to be responsive to the parents and the kids and the communities," O'Neill said. "We've had a great partnership so far, and we hope to see that continued."

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