Noe Valley Voice March 1998

Edison School Rises Above 'Bad Rap'

By Dodie Hamblen

Fifth-graders at Edison Elementary are proud of their school. They feel that Edison, which sits at the corner of 22nd and Dolores streets, has gotten a bad rap lately, and they want people to know that recent articles in the San Francisco Chronicle (Jan. 6, 1998) and the Independent (Dec. 2, 1997) do not reflect the positive changes that are taking place at the school.

Those news stories focused on the school's longstanding reputation as "the worst elementary school in San Francisco." They also dwelled on the school district's unsuccessful attempt to rehabilitate Edison by means of reconstitution -- a radical process in which the principal and the entire faculty are replaced. Edison was "reconstituted" three years ago.

What the stories failed to convey was the hard work of students and teachers and the renewed sense of hope since the arrival of interim principal Barbara Karvelis in November.

Says fifth-grader Starrkisha Miles, "Now there's less fighting, and we're learning more."

An administrator with many years of hands-on experience in San Francisco schools, Karvelis has come in as a temporary troubleshooter until a new principal can be named next fall. But in just a few short months, she has changed Edison from a public school in turmoil to a school poised for success. New partnerships with the community have been forged, and in an effort to raise low test scores, the school has adopted a special focus on reading.

"We know we're not home yet, but we're getting there," said Karvelis of the school's new goals.

In the fall, a reading assessment at the school found that Edison students were, on average, two years behind in reading. Since then, the school has made literacy its top priority. A new reading program has been adopted -- there was none before -- and teachers and staff are being trained to use it.

Called Scholastic, the program combines phonics with a whole language approach. Kids in second through fifth grade now spend two hours a day practicing their reading skills. One of those hours is spent in small groups. The school has also hired two full-time "Reading Recovery" specialists to work with at-risk first-graders. One is English speaking, the other Spanish. Previously there was only one part-time reading specialist.

And in February, Edison kicked off a new partnership with Working Assets, the socially progressive phone and credit card company. About 15 of Working Assets' employees have made a long-term commitment to tutoring at the school.

CEO Laura Scher says, "We are very excited about this partnership. Education is such a key issue for the '90s. We wanted to adopt a school that really needed our help." In addition to tutoring, the company will sponsor special projects at least once a year at the school.

Edison is also gathering support from neighbors in the Mission and Noe Valley. Pamela Coxen, a mathematician who last year spent four to six hours a week tutoring kids in teacher Vincent Williams' fourth-grade class, says, "It isn't as bleak as you would think. I volunteered in a wonderful classroom with a terrific teacher." She has nothing but praise for Williams' dedication and teaching ability.

Coxen decided to lend a hand at Edison to show her strong support for public education. But she also has personal ties to the school. She and her husband live on Fair Oaks Street in the house where he grew up. Her husband went to Edison as a child, and the couple hope to send their son there when he enters school in a few years. Coxen has also volunteered on weekends, helping teachers develop their math curriculum.

The school is getting an additional boost from state and local resources. Class sizes at Edison are smaller than ever as a result of state funding to reduce elementary school class size. Kindergarten through third-grade classrooms have no more than 20 students, and no class has more than 23. A $1.5 million renovation of the building is slated for this summer, thanks to a local bond issue. And the school's library will receive $30,000 for new books this year.

Karvelis feels the community needs to take a fresh look at Edison. "It's a wonderful, wonderful site, with wonderful teachers. Change is happening rapidly. There is a tremendous opportunity here to create a neighborhood school."

She suggests that with new guidelines making admission to the city's alternative schools more difficult, Noe Valley parents might want to consider Edison -- a school their kids can walk to -- as a viable option. She believes Edison has a chance to become another Lakeshore, Rooftop, or Clarendon -- all desirable alternative schools.

Karvelis admits that in the past, teachers and administrators throughout the district thought students at Edison were out of control and violent. Today, she says, violence is "gone -- totally wiped out. The teachers are back in control."

Katie Brackenridge, co-director of Jamestown Community Center, a recreational and educational outreach program that operates out of Edison, says reports of violence at the school were somewhat exaggerated anyway. "I don't see much violence. There's a lot of swearing and a periodic fight, but there has been much less violence in the past four years."

Brackenridge, whose programs are for kids 8 to 18, is concerned that the recent bad press about Edison has hurt the students' self-esteem. "The kids read the newspaper articles and they want to know, 'If my school is bad, am I bad?'"

She also feels the teachers have taken a beating. "To say the teachers are bad is unfair. [Many] are here until nine at night and on weekends. They take time to sit down with tutors to talk about specific student needs. For the most part, the kids really like their teachers."

The fifth-graders in Rhonda Sampson's class heartily agree. Asked what he likes about Edison, 10-year-old Delvin Satele replies instantly: "I like my teacher!" And his response is typical.

Sampson is an energetic educator, and her students are inspired by her creative and respectful approach to teaching. They are also enthusiastic about their class assignments. "I like the things we do, like doing reports. My report is on Zaire. I like learning about what they do there," says student Janice Beckham. Others say they enjoy going to the public library to do research after school.

As a writing assignment, Sampson's students wrote letters to the Independent after the paper's negative story in December. Their letters illustrate their anger and hurt. "Because of that article my whole school is upset, and some kids think that they did something wrong," wrote Genevieve Cabanero.

"I wish you would come to our school before writing that Edison Elementary is the worst school," wrote Sandy Chen.

"It looks like you were only here long enough just to take a picture," wrote Basim Mashni.

Rosa Jauqez, a parent who has sent two children to Edison, works as an aide and is the Hispanic parent liaison for the school. "I love this school. It has great potential," she says. "And I am very pleased with the changes. Yesterday I had training for the new reading program, and today when we used it with the kids, it really worked. The problem at Edison is not the children."

Praise for the new efforts at Edison also comes from Gail Kaufman, a spokesperson for School Superintendent Bill Rojas. "Edison has shown tremendous improvements. Strong gains are being made with Dr. Karvelis at the school," Kaufman says.

While Superintendent Rojas is still not satisfied with the school's academic performance -- the school ranks 60th out of 65 in reading, and 61st in math -- he is pleased with the gains the school has made on the Comprehensive Basic Skills Tests, she says. Test scores are up 4 points in reading and 5.6 points in math.

"Tremendous resources are being directed at Edison," Kaufman adds. "It's been a challenging situation, but we are very pleased with the direction the school is taking."

Former principal Ken Romines, whose book A Principal's Story described the chaos and discontent during the school's worst years, is also encouraged by changes at Edison. "The focus is on the kids again. There's a feeling that things are going to work," he says.

The only potential bump in the road ahead is that Karvelis will step down from her temporary assignment in June. However, she plans to participate in the selection of Edison's new principal and to continue her association with the school in any way she can. "I will not abandon Edison. I'm having a great time. I love it. It's been a really rewarding year."

Those interested in volunteering or tutoring at Edison should contact San Francisco School Volunteers at 274-0250.