Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: The Edison Story in Dayton

Foreword

For several years, in our role as charter school authorizer, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has worked closely and collaboratively with the governing authority (Alliance Community Schools) of the Dayton View and Dayton Liberty charter schools to encourage better results. After more than a decade of working together, the governing board fired the school’s operator, Edison Learning, at the end of the 2011-12 school year. At the start of this school year the management responsibilities for both buildings were turned over to a veteran Dayton educator and his management team. 

Because we believe there are many lessons to be drawn from this experience, we engaged veteran journalist Ellen Belcher to tell the story of these two schools and ongoing efforts to improve the education they provide some of Dayton’s neediest children. Ellen is an award-winning journalist and former editorial page editor of the Dayton Daily News, where she frequently wrote about education issues including those around charter schools.

Our task to Ellen was straightforward – talk to the board members (current and former), administrators, teachers, and parents involved in the two schools and find out their stories. Why, in their words, haven’t the schools lived up to their promise? She also reached out to current and former officials from the schools’ former operator, Edison Learning, to get their perspectives on these issues, and she spoke with Fordham President Chester E. Finn, Jr. for his take as well. 

Ellen tackled the assignment with her usual curiosity, skepticism, and reporter’s acumen. She not only worked to provide a history of what has happened in the schools over the last decade, but also sought to uncover why we (the authorizer, the board, and the larger community) should continue to hold out hope that the schools can in fact become high-performing academic centers of excellence after more than a decade of less than stellar results. Her reporting is impeccable and we share it in the hopes that others will find it instructive and helpful in their ongoing efforts – as authorizers, as school operators, as policy makers, and as educators – to help improve schools.

- Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton

Introduction

Edison Schools, Inc. had everything going for it when it opened a charter school in Dayton, Ohio, in 1999.

It was competing for students in a city where the public schools were objectively failing. Parents were hungry for other choices. The number of charter schools in Dayton had not yet exploded, so Edison had a chance to own the market.

Then the country’s largest operator of for-profit schools, it welcomed its students to a modern new building in a city where public and many parochial schools were old and tired. The school was large enough that enrollment could grow to more than 1,000 students, and a second Edison school was scheduled to open the following year.

Led by the effervescent Chris Whittle, Edison was hot in national education reform circles, and the company was gearing up to go public. It had every reason to make Dayton one of its showcases for the contention that entrepreneurs driven by good intentions and profit could succeed where public bureaucracies with a virtual lock on students had failed.

The promise, energy and passion Edison brought to Dayton was intoxicating to the city’s business leaders, who had recruited Edison. They were at a loss about how to improve the region’s largest school district, and they were adamant about the need to try.

Twelve years later – and 20 years after the national Edison experiment began – the company was fired in Dayton. There was none of the fanfare and public notice that accompanied Edison’s entry. In that sense, Edison’s experience in Dayton ended better than it did in other places, where there have been heated public meetings and recriminations.

But the rationale for the firing was not a new one: the company, now known as EdisonLearning, never delivered.

In the wake of disappointments like what has happened in Dayton, the company has backed away from running schools. Success as measured by test scores has proven hard to achieve, let alone replicate. Instead, EdisonLearning is now focusing on drop-out recovery initiatives (including in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati) and selling services to schools.

What does Edison’s exit mean in Dayton?

The need to provide a quality alternative to Dayton public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods hasn’t gone away. But the naïve or heady or uninformed notion – pick your adjective – that stubbornly poor test scores can be dramatically improved if only business acumen is thrown at the problem has been painfully discredited.

In place of that strategy, the former Edison schools’ board of directors is putting its hopes in a seasoned, 58-year-old former Catholic high school principal. For two years as an Edison principal in Dayton, T. J. Wallace saw what was not working. His job now is to do what his former out-of-town bosses could never figure out.

As executive director of the Dayton Leadership Academies, Wallace has two years to turn around the former Edison schools. If he and his teachers, who have not had a raise in four years, fail, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – the schools’ “authorizer” under Ohio’s charter school law – can shut them down for poor performance.

  

Dayton Liberty (left) and Dayton View (right) campuses

That possibility is never far from Wallace’s mind or his board’s. They see it not as a threat, but as a reform imperative, one that’s central to the charter school movement that they’ve championed even in the face of Edison’s failure. If they can’t do the job, then they deserve to be fired as well.

Business Can Do It Better

Allen M. Hill was on the school board known as Alliance for Community Schools that first hired Edison. The president and chief executive officer of Dayton Power & Light, Hill was part of the cadre of 18 high-level executives who were drilling into public education because they believed that Dayton schools’ poor test scores were damaging the region’s reputation.

The Dayton Business Committee initially wanted Edison, Inc. to take over five of Dayton’s most troubled schools under contract with the district, a move the school superintendent agreed to. But the teachers’ union vetoed that plan.

Unbowed, the business leaders responded by opening two new charter schools in back-to-back years, with plans for more, and they hired Edison to manage them. They put up $500,000 for one of the new buildings and effectively guaranteed the mortgage for it. They went into debt with Edison for the other.

“These are business people,” Hill said. “When one approach failed, they went with a different one.… No one believed charter schools were an answer to (failing) public education,” he said. The goal was to create competition, not create a replacement or “a parallel system.”

Hill said that before hiring Edison, the Dayton Business Committee vetted multiple educational management companies. In choosing Edison, the executives believed they had gone with the gold standard.

“We thought we had it all: brand new facilities, the best management company,” said Doug Mangen, who was executive director of the Dayton Business Committee when Edison was hired.

Mangen, who today owns a school management company and was a board member for the Edison schools from 2009 until July 2012, said he and others “got sucked into the sales pitch.” In hindsight, they were too impressed, he said, by Edison’s “$50 million in research on urban education” and the belief that “Dayton was going to be at the forefront” of education reform.

Mangen said that when he joined the board seven years after he had been involved in helping select Edison, the company had changed. The goal was no longer reinventing urban education “but how do we maximize profit.”

“The whole mindset of ‘whatever it takes’ wasn’t there anymore,” Mangen said.

Edison Fizzles

Edison officials declined to be interviewed for this article. Michael E. Serpe, a spokesman for EdisonLearning, provided a written statement saying that the company “agrees with and supports” the school board’s decision to run the two schools.

It continued: Edison is “proud of the role we have been able to play to help both schools develop the capacity to operate on their own.” The schools “have consistently outperformed other public schools in Dayton on a majority of the indicators” that Ohio uses to rate public schools, the statement said.

John Chubb, who was senior executive vice president of Edison until February 2010, said the “biggest challenge” in Dayton was hiring good people. Edison struggled to recruit principals and teachers to come to Dayton. The company, he said, offered signing bonuses to prospective employees and hired Teach For America leaders, hoping they could connect with eager, young teachers.

Chubb said he frequently came to board meetings in Dayton and that despite a “strong partnership,” the schools “never lived up to Edison’s expectations or the board’s.”

Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, whose sister organization sponsors the two schools overseen by the Alliance for Community Schools board, is among the most disillusioned about Edison’s effort in Dayton. Finn was at the table with Whittle and Chubb when Edison was conceived, and he was an early proponent of its education model. He said that the company’s “horror show” in his hometown is a special embarrassment.

“They did an abysmal job in Dayton,” Finn said. “I think it was an implementation and an accountability failure.”

An assistant secretary of education under former President Ronald Reagan, Finn said he has become “cynical” about the for-profit model in education. “Shareholder return ends up trumping the best interests of students,” he said. Having watched education management companies for 20 years, “Most of the models I admire today are run by non-profit groups.”

The Rev. Vanessa Ward said she “had stars in my eyes” when she came on the Edison schools’ board three years ago. But she quickly realized that conditions were “not as rosy as I thought.” Attempts to bring up tests scores resulted in “disappointment after disappointment,” she said.

In 2003, Edison’s Dayton Liberty campus received a “grade” from the state that is the equivalent of an “F” and then a “C” for the following three years. The school dropped to a “D” for the next three years, followed by an “F” in 2010. It bounced up to a “C” in 2011.

During the same time, the Dayton View campus earned an “F” in 2003, then a “C,” then an “F,” followed by three years of “Ds” and three years of “Cs.” Graphs 1-4 show the struggles of students to make proficiency in fourth and eighth grade reading and math over time in these schools.

Dayton Leadership Academies' academic perfromance, 2002 to 2012

Some board members and teachers believe that the Dayton View campus’ “C” in 2011 is questionable. An investigation was launched after a teacher called Fordham during the testing period to say students were being given extra time and that state testing protocols weren’t being followed. A review by Fordham staff and its attorney did not confirm cheating had occurred, but suspicions remain.

“There was lots of sloppiness that year,” said Ellen Ireland, the chair of the schools’ board.

In 2012, Dayton View’s rating, to no one’s surprise, dropped to Academic Emergency; while Dayton Liberty was again rated Academic Watch.

Former DP&L executive Hill said he thinks part of the explanation for Edison’s poor showing in Dayton is the company never got a foothold in the state. The national “expansion plan worked against us,” Hill said. “I think the key take-away was that we were (only) two schools in Ohio.”

Ireland, who came on the board in 2007, said Edison kept coming up with new strategies to bring up test scores. “It continuously looked like we were ramping up for success. … After a while, you got wiser.”

The Teacher Perspective

Teachers’ frustrations are more micro. Several complained that Edison demanded “fidelity to the (Edison) program,” forcing them to move ahead in their time-limited lessons even if students were not grasping concepts. They also said Edison’s assessments of students’ learning did not match up with the state’s achievement tests.

That misalignment, some people said, would have been less likely if Edison had operated more schools in Ohio, which was the company’s goal initially.

Wallace, who credited Edison with hiring “high caliber” corporate administrators, said problems arose and were missed because managers were “too far away” to really know what was going on in Dayton. He said that when he became a principal two years ago, he was incredulous that Edison had at least nine people cleaning the schools.

Dayton Leadership Academies principal, T.J. Wallace

While expenses were high, the schools’ enrollment had tanked. Buildings built for 1,000 kids were holding half that many, Wallace said. The small enrollment meant Edison wasn’t getting the per-student state funding it was banking on, thereby severely dragging down revenue.

One eighth-grade class last year had 42 students, Wallace said, and some kindergarten classes had more than 30.

Brandie Larsen, whose third graders were discussing the differences between “expository non-fiction” and “realistic fiction” on an afternoon in September, said that “there was very little room for re-teaching” under the Edison model.

“They said we could use our ‘center time’ to re-teach in a small group,” Larsen, 32, said. “But if you could see that an entire class or the majority were not grasping a certain topic, that would not be appropriate.”

“We were told to set your timer and that when it went off, you were done,” Larsen explained. “I thought that was ludicrous.”

Laura Sturey, a second-grade teacher who is in her fifth year at the former Edison schools, said, “I liked the data we used to drive our instruction.” She worried, though, about how her students were responding to their low scores on the monthly benchmark tests that assessed what they were to have mastered by the end of the year. Even when some students got a 33 on their first test, “They handled it well,” she said.

Some years she considered quitting in frustration, she said, but “I saw abandonment all around me. … These kids need people who are going to stay in their lives.”

Both Sturey and Larsen are critical of Edison’s professional development, calling it a “waste of time” and “pointless.” They both praised Edison’s “core values” curriculum that emphasized good behavior.

Channey Goode, who is in his first year as a principal and was hired as a language arts teacher in 2004, said that Edison administrators had a “one-size-fits-all” management approach. They agreed the schools were not performing well, but “they couldn’t pinpoint why it was happening,” he said.

Edison’s Last Go at Turning Things Around

Hill said that Edison – and he – didn’t know how to cope with the unrelenting transience of the students.

“I had no appreciation of the mobility,” Hill said, noting that teachers often didn’t have the records they needed on students’ achievement or about their often chaotic home lives. The turnover meant that kids fell behind or teachers were forced to constantly backtrack.

He and others also complained that attendance was a problem, in part, because Dayton Public Schools were slow to cooperate and even hostile about reliably transporting students to their competition.

Edison continued to spend money in Dayton, even in the face of stunning enrollment declines. The high water year was 2004, when more than 2,500 students attended the two schools. By 2011, that number had dropped to 1,002. This year the schools have a budget based on a combined enrollment of just 746 children, and while the number of students in the Dayton Public Schools has declined over the last decade (from 20,000 students in 2002 to about 14,000 in 2012), the losses at Dayton Liberty and Dayton View have been even more dramatic.

Dayton Leadership Academies' enrollment, 2002 to 2012

One particularly expensive Edison initiative aimed at increasing student achievement was E2.  Dayton was one of three sites where the “blended learning” program that marries teachers and technology in the classroom was tested, according to Chubb, the former Edison executive.

Implementing it required new labs with more than 100 computers in each, Goode said. Students spent long periods in the labs and, according to Goode and others, the effort “flopped.” E2 was abandoned after two years.

Dick Penry, a respected former Dayton Public Schools principal who was hired to be the school board’s liaison to Edison, said the complicated program should have been introduced incrementally and that teachers were not trained well.

“There was nothing wrong with the Edison design,” he said. “It was how it was implemented.”

Chubb defended E2, saying it has been particularly effective at other schools.

Ireland said she doesn’t believe Edison shortchanged its Dayton schools financially until the “last 18 months,” when the board let it be known that it was out of patience.

Penry, the former Dayton Public Schools principal, has a different take. He said he reviewed spread sheets provided by Edison showing that as much as $600,000 went to the “mother ship” just in the 2011-12 school year, even though enrollment was terrible. “You can only speculate what they were taking when they had 2,000 kids,” he said.

Penry conceded, however, that he has no way of knowing how much of that money was profit and how much was for legitimate indirect overhead costs.

Dayton Leadership Academies board member, Dick Penry

Under state law, however, charter management companies only have to provide minimal accounting information to both the school’s governing board and its authorizer.

Ireland, the board chair, said that in the last two and a half years board members used their authority to push more aggressively about insisting on access to financial data, especially when class sizes started ballooning.

Going it Alone

Why are the local school board and Fordham hopeful that Edison’s former schools can be turned around? What’s different today? What are the lessons of the Edison experiment in Dayton?

Ireland, the board chair, said, teachers have new authority about how the schools are run and that there’s a laser-like focus on individual student performance. She points to what are called the “data rooms” where each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses are displayed for teachers.

“It’s very powerful,” Ireland said.

The Rev. Ward has seen charter school failure up close twice now. In 2000, she opened and led the Omega School of Excellence, a charter school that shut down in 2008 after a run of poor test scores. When her husband became seriously ill, she gave up her hands-on leadership role, and the school floundered. She said she worked with Fordham – the school’s authorizer – to close the school.

But the African-American minister is staying involved with the former Edison schools, because there still “doesn’t seem to be a lot of options for our kids.”

“I think I’m hopeful,” she said, “because the decisions are now centralized and local. … I feel positive, (but) I am cautious.”

She credits Wallace, with managing a difficult transition away from Edison. “It’s a team, and it’s a community,” she said.

David Greer, a Dayton neighborhood activist who has been on the schools’ board from the outset, explains that he’s not quitting because, “The last thing we want to do is shut down, go away. We have families who depend on us.”

Referring to Fordham, Greer said he’s more than aware that “if we don’t improve, we’re going to lose a sponsor.”

Asked why he believed the schools can yet succeed, Fordham’s Finn quipped, “As far as I know, T.J. (the schools’ director) does not walk on water.” But he added that there is ample evidence in Ohio and elsewhere that high-poverty schools can produce excellent results when the right school leader and teachers are hired.

Wallace said his strategy is “working the plan”: hiring exceptional people and involving them in important decisions. Teachers say that they appreciate being empowered to choose the schools’ curricula – which includes sticking with some Edison choices and bringing in different ones.

Wallace has also eagerly hired six teachers from Teach For America. 

After 10 days on the job, Tyler Stanley, a Teach For America special education co-teacher, said he immediately felt a “sense of community” at the Dayton View campus. He said the environment is “high stress,” but “you know where you’ve got to go.”

Fred Conner, who sends his two children and his two nieces to the Dayton Liberty campus, said that Edison’s leaving “seems to be a good thing.” “Teachers don’t feel like they’re being micromanaged,” he said.

Conner said he drives his children from the suburb of West Carrollton, a 30-minute, one-way commute, in “rain, sleet, or snow.” He was aware of the school’s 2011 “C” ranking, but said, “I believe we’re not going anywhere but up.”

Michele Miller’s son was part of the first class to attend classes at the Dayton Liberty campus, and she has since sent three other children to the school. She “had no idea” that Edison is no longer managing the schools. She said Dayton Liberty prepared her two eldest boys well for high school, but she complained that she doesn’t have the rapport with the junior academy teachers that she had with teachers in the younger grades. She also said she preferred when the school day lasted until 4 p.m., an Edison hallmark.

This year classes end at 3 p.m., a move that several teachers said they welcome. Eight hours with students was exhausting, they said. Using that hour after school to discuss problem students and for professional development has been valuable, they said.

Said Larsen, the third-grade teacher, “I don’t know if there’s a secret sauce, but everybody has to be committed. It’s the level of commitment you have with your entire staff.”

The Rev. Ward, who, when she was at Omega, felt the same pressure that’s on Wallace, said, “It’s so fragile. If you don’t have a school leader, you’re doomed. If you don’t have a strong vision, you’re doomed.”

Penry, formerly the liaison to Edison, said, “Now, of course, there are no excuses. We can’t blame Edison if we’re not successful.”

More By Author

Related Articles