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Education news from schools, business, research and professional organizations

Edison Schools’ Acid Test

For Edison Schools, running 20 schools in Philadelphia may be the test that determines the company’s fate. If that is so, the experiment has gotten off to a rough start.

Janice Solkov, former principal at the city’s Morton McMichael Elementary School, quit after a few months on the job due to what she says were difficulties in answering to two bosses—Edison Schools and the Philadelphia School District. Two weeks before she left on Dec. 31, Solkov said she had to juggle attending and reporting on two different principals’ meetings, some of which were held at the same time. In addition, she had high expectations to implement the Edison Schools model, but often found she was unable to properly deliver.

“I still believe in the Edison model. I feel it can work successfully in other places and maybe, in time, it can work successfully in Philadelphia as well,” she says.

Currently in 150 schools in 23 states and serving 80,000 students, Edison Schools use 10 key elements in its model, including stressing reading and giving home computers to every child.

Education author and critic Alfie Kohn says Edison has yet to show a profit. He even notes that Western Michigan University researchers evaluated some Edison Schools and found “no overall advantage” compared to public schools.

While woes mount for Edison in Philadelphia—including bad publicity over an alleged sweetheart deal to take over 20 city schools in 2001—company officials say many Edison schools are successful.

Many Edison Schools start out with children who perform below proficiency, according to Adam Tucker, Edison’s vice president of communications.

As for Solkov’s resignation, Tucker says she is one of 45 principals in Edison’s Philadelphia schools. He brushes off criticism about not having textbooks or other materials delivered by the time school opens, saying it’s often hard to get all materials delivered when contracts are sometimes signed weeks before school starts.

“Eighty-four percent of our schools have shown significant improvement in terms of test scores,” Tucker says. “That means 16 percent of schools have stayed flat or declined. If you focus on that, you can easily paint a picture of ? schools under-performing.”

Tucker shrugs off the stock price decline, from nearly $37 a few years ago to less than $2 as of January, by citing the stock market’s overall decline. He says the market overreacted when it was expected that Edison would get a contract for 45 Philadelphia schools, instead of nabbing just 20. “We think we know what our future holds,” Tucker says, “strong financial footing and great academic performance.” —Angela Pascopella

Cheating in Chicago

A Chicago test cheating investigation revealed in November that 16 people at 10 schools could be involved in the elaborate scam.

Investigators found many erasures on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills from wrong to right answers in one teacher’s set of tests.

Principal Joanne Davis of Armour School allegedly allowed the tests to stay in classrooms overnight during the testing period rather than locking them up, said Peter Cunningham, system spokesman, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Since the cheating probe was announced in October, a substitute teacher was fired for providing test clues, allowing students extra time, and erasing incorrect answers. The Chicago Teachers Union president claimed in November that no tenured teacher faced discipline.

Michigan Gives Grants for Wireless Technology

One district will use its $1.3 million state grant to provide all seventhgraders with wireless handhelds to concentrate on writing skills across the curriculum. Another project, funded at $1.1 million, will implement a student-centered instructional model focusing on problem-based learning. A third district will use its $1.1 million grant to give some fourth- and seventhgrade classrooms wireless computers to participate in online projects with students around the world.

These districts are among the six first-round demonstration site grantees of Michigan’s Learning Without Limits program. The program asked interested districts to demonstrate how wireless computing technologies and applications could improve their schools’ education. In addition, eight districts received funding for current projects.

Bruce Montgomery, the vice president of program co-developer Michigan Virtual University, says he was pleased with the variety of proposals submitted. Every district seemed to understand “the notion of one-toone computing and the need for teacher professional development, administrator buy-in and support, parent involvement and partnerships with local community groups and [universities],” he says. —Melissa Ezarik,

“No-Risk” Hiring in the Peach State

It’s time for the 1998 teacher preparation policy in Georgia to pass its true test.

This policy now guarantees the teachers the state is educating—or else they go back to school. Capping off changes in teacher recruitment, such as raised entry requirements, more content area study and earlier classroom experiences, the first graduates of the improved system are now first-year teachers. And educators have high hopes they’ll pass their own test.

“Our programs have shifted from an input model to an outcomes model in the sense that we have a set of proficiencies we have to meet,” says Jan Kettlewell, associate vice chancellor for P-16 initiatives for the University System of Georgia. The university, with the state’s Board of Regents, created the new teacher education policy. “The guarantee says we stand behind our graduates.”

Upon graduation, all teachers continue to work with the university for two years. But any teacher deemed unable to meet seven expectations of teacher graduates can be sent back to school at no cost to the district. The training format would be negotiated between the district and university.

Kettlewell says she knows of no other state university system with a similar guarantee, though some individual institutions offer it. “I think it positions universities where we need to be,” she says. “We’re responsible for preparing a high quality teacher. If for some reason we’re not doing that, we need to be doing that.” —Melissa Ezarik

Parents Sent to Court For Children’s Goofs

The parents of students at a Houston middle school will be going to court if their children fail to do homework and fail to attend an after-school program.

At Houston’s North Shore Middle School, the parents of students who habitually fail to complete their homework and miss a mandatory after-school program will be summoned to court. While four dozen parents were given citations in December, the judge merely used the session to set an example and explain the importance of homework.

Raccoon Head Mailed To Ohio Principal

High school band director Donald Sullivan was indicted in December on charges of intimidation and retaliation because he allegedly mailed a raccoon head to a principal during a teachers’ strike.

Sullivan allegedly admitted to mailing the animal head to Maple Heights High School Principal Deborah Houchins during a two-month strike. He told police he was angry with Houchins because she let the high school’s band perform without its director during the strike. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

STUDY: Internet Filters Bring Problems

Educators and parents who think filters will protect “little Suzie” from accidentally accessing pornography when searching for information on kitties should think again.

Internet filters allowed access to pornography more than one in three times, 38 percent, in accidental access simulations, according to a recent Internet filter study.

In December, the Kaiser Family Foundation issued a study, See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Information. Kaiser researchers studied youth access to health information with filtering software. And researchers studied six leading filtering products in U.S. public schools: SmartFilter, 8e6, Websense, CyberPatrol, Symantec, N2H2 and AOL Parental Controls.

They assessed the ability to access sites containing health information across a range of topics, including health unrelated to sex, health related to sexual body parts, and sites with potentially controversial health information.

The six filters in schools were set at: least restrictive—blocking only pornographyrelated categories; intermediate restrictive—blocking categories that are most likely considered inappropriate; and most restrictive—blocking all categories conceivable in a library or school. Most schools have systems at or above the intermediate level.

Kaiser researchers also tested the systems’ ability to block access to pornography when someone was intentionally looking for it.

Under conditions simulating intentional access, one in 10 sites containing pornography were accessible. If schools do not have effective supervision or engage in regular review of blocked URL reports, intentional attempted access would go undetected. This means U.S. public schools are spending billions of dollars for about two minutes of protection, says Nancy Willard, the director of Responsible Netizen at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology.

Researchers found that filters set at the least restrictive level blocked only 1.4 percent of health information sites and blocked 5 percent of sites at the intermediate level. However, at the most restrictive level, filters blocked 24 percent of these “good” sites.

A closer analysis of the data reveals blocking patterns that present even significantly greater concerns, Willard adds. In categories where the subject is controversial or the sites themselves may contain controversial information, such as safe sex and homosexuality, the rate of overblocking was significantly higher. At the intermediate restriction configuration, filters blocked one in four of those health information sites.

In the end, the Kaiser study reveals why it is unwise and inappropriate to rely on filtering software to protect young people when they use the Internet, Willard says.

A Commuter Elementary School

Parents who work downtown will be able to drop off their children at Miami-Dade County’s first commuter elementary school.

Ada Merritt Elementary is scheduled to open next fall. Youngsters eligible to attend can be from anywhere in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, as long as their parents work in Miami-Dade.

The school will not offer buses, but will have beforeand after-school care for an extra fee. The school aims to answer the needs of working parents who want to drop off and pick up their children around working hours. The school is part of a five-year, $14.6 million program to potentially give students unprecedented access to schools outside their immediate neighborhood.

Oakland Needs Fiscal Bailout

A California urban school district that had made major strides in test scores in recent years may soon become the fifth system to request a bail out and turn its management over to the state.

Oakland Unified School District is running about $80 million in the red. The head of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which was called in to investigate the shortfall, said Oakland may require the largest bailout in the state’s history.

Compounding Oakland’s crisis is the state’s own $34 billion budget shortfall.

“They are going to have to make budget cuts and do it now to make the loan smaller,’’ says Erik Skinner, assistant secretary for fiscal policy in Gov. Gray Davis’ education office. “They will have a lot of competition for [state] money.’’

Under the leadership of Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, Oakland became a model for urban reform. During his three-year tenure, the district raised reading and math test scores dramatically for thousands of students. The district also hired 300 new teachers, reduced class sizes and raised teacher salaries by 24 percent.

But the reforms came with a price, and now many state and county officials are asking who was minding the checkbook. They are particularly angered that the district didn’t seem to pay attention to a report issued by the fiscal crisis team in January 2000 that warned in part of antiquated budgeting systems.

Chaconas did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment. Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan, who is charged with overseeing Oakland and other districts in the Bay area, says Chaconas told her he had no idea there weren’t enough funds to pay for salaries and new programs. She says she is concerned about false budgetary numbers.

“Nobody thinks someone took money and opened a bank account in Switzerland, but we are concerned about why the numbers were wrong,’’ Jordan says. “This budget deficit is inappropriately large.’’ —Fran Silverman

Former State Supt. Slapped with Million-Dollar Judgment

A Sacramento Superior Court judge slammed the California Department of Education and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin with a $4.5 million fine in a whistle-blower case.

James Lindberg, an adult-education consultant for the state education department, stated that he and others were forced to quit or were fired after they found the department doled out misappropriated federal funds to community-based organizations between 1995 and 2000. And state education department officials could not account for $11 million in taxpayer funds.

Lindberg said when he brought his findings to Eastin and other officials, they demoted him to keep him from telling others.

In December, the jury found Eastin “acted with malice” and should pay punitive damages. California education department officials will appeal.