Noe Valley Voice May 2001

Local Parents Steer Clear of Edison Charter Academy

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Edison Charter Academy, located at the corner of Dolores and 22nd streets, has been embroiled in controversy since June 24, 1998. That was the day the San Francisco Board of Education, under the charge of School Superintendent Bill Rojas, voted 5 to 2 to turn over management of the troubled elementary school to Edison Schools, Inc., a New York­based firm.

Debate has raged over a number of sticky issues associated with the school, from charges of teacher coercion, and bribery and corruption on the part of Rojas and the former school board members, to claims that Edison Schools, Inc. has squeezed out low-performing students to boost test results. But the overarching question has been whether a private corporation should be allowed to use taxpayers' money to run a public school, and net a profit from doing so.

Since January, when a new majority opposed to the charter agreement took control of the school board, the Edison saga has received heavy press coverage in both the local and national media. The San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Guardian, and Independent have all run exhaustive stories, as have the New York Times, National Public Radio, and KQED-TV's News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

The situation really heated up on March 26 when the San Francisco Unified School District released a 125-page report detailing complaints lodged against Edison by parents, teachers, and community groups. Among the citations were high teacher turnover, misleading test scores, and inadequate fiscal reporting. Critics also accused the school of "counseling out" students who were difficult to teach and not providing the type of bilingual education its charter required.

Edison Schools, meanwhile, has publicly denied all violations of the charter agreement. And many of the parents of students at Edison Academy have urged the school board to butt out. They say that the charter school, with its strict discipline, emphasis on academics, longer school day, and abundance of computers and supplies, is a big improvement over the district-managed school of the early '90s. Test scores are up, and student and parent satisfaction is high, they say.

On March 27, at a particularly tumultuous, several-hours-long board meeting attended by a boisterous crowd of 400 parents and students--most of them in support of Edison--board members voted 6 to 1 to begin the process of prematurely revoking Edison's five-year charter. The board gave Edison 90 days to respond to a list of problems or lose its charter and return management of the 500-student school to the district. The school is scrambling to meet the board's demands, while continuing to hold classes through June.

But, despite Edison's location on the edge of Noe Valley, the politically active, normally very vocal Noe Valley community has been largely silent regarding the charter controversy.

"I think one of the reasons Noe Valley hasn't been interested is that residents don't realize what this could mean to the district as a whole," says Marybeth Wallace, vice president of Upper Noe Neighbors and the parent-involvement coordinator at Coleman Advocates for Youth and Children, which has strongly opposed the Edison Inc. charter.

"Noe Valley parents don't take the Edison issue personally, because it doesn't personally affect them," Wallace continues. "Plus, Edison's location feels more like the Mission than Noe Valley, so they don't think of Edison as a Noe Valley school. Also, Noe Valley tends to have younger children living here, so perhaps parents are not into public school issues yet, and a lot of Noe Valley school-age children are in private school."

"I think there are two sets of parents in the neighborhood," adds Jane Reed, a Chattanooga Street resident. "There's the older set, like me, whose kids have already been through the schools, and consequently we've already done our share of political screaming. The younger parents are not hip enough to school issues yet, or maybe they don't get the impact, or they're frustrated because they feel as if their voice doesn't matter."

Over the past month, the Voice spent several hours seeking out and interviewing neighborhood leaders and residents along 24th Street to get their thoughts about the charter issue and the seeming lack of interest among their neighbors.

Several people we spoke to didn't know what Edison was and hadn't read any of the news reports. "As long as they're not putting any dot-comers in there, whatever they decide to do is okay with me," said one resident.

Others, like Elizabeth Street resident Sharon Hamilton, are aware of the story, but not particularly interested because they plan to move from San Francisco by the time their children enter school. "What the district is doing seems like a good move to me," says Hamilton, a parent of a 21/2-year-old son with another baby on the way. "I'm a nurse, and if our union can't get what they want, they threaten a strike. This seems like the same process to me.

"Schools are a long-term issue," she adds. "We've lived in Noe Valley for seven years, but are getting ready to move to San Anselmo. There's better weather, more space, and a better quality of life. I always knew I would move out of San Francisco at some point."

Says Laurel Eby, a Jersey Street resident and parent of a 2-year-old daughter (she also has another baby due any day), "It seems kind of silly to me that they're revoking the charter solely because it's a for-profit school. Edison seems to be doing a good job. The parents seem to think their kids are getting a good education, and the school district hadn't been doing a good job of keeping the school running."

However, Eby says her family "will probably leave the city" when her children reach school-age. "The schools aren't good, and we can't afford to buy a house here. Unless housing prices come down and the schools improve vastly in the next three years, we'll probably move to the East Bay."

Still, there are some Noe Valley residents who are quite concerned about the Edison situation.

Gloria Lee lives on Dolores across the street from the school and was one of the few Noe Valley residents who attended the March 27 board meeting.

"I think it's too bad the neighboring community hasn't gotten involved," she says. "As a citizen of San Francisco, I am concerned about this situation. It's true that there is the philosophical issue for parents of whether they want to send their students to a school run by a for-profit company, but what the school board really needs to focus on are student test results and whether the students are learning. It doesn't seem to me that the board is doing that.

"I volunteered at Edison when the corporation first took over, and I've seen a huge improvement in the education kids are getting now," she continues. "Also, I work from home a lot of days, and I can see from my window how well behaved the kids are in the schoolyard. If you look at the data, the school has improved. I think there is something drastically wrong with what the board is doing. I don't have kids yet, but I'm seriously going to rethink raising my kids in San Francisco if this is how the school board operates."

Hill Street resident Zack Rogow, who is the parent of two children enrolled in San Francisco public schools, also attended the March 27 board meeting, but he remains worried about the idea of a private corporation running a public school. "There are a lot of unanswered questions about the way [Edison Inc.] manages its finances and selects the student body," he says. "We need a mechanism to hold Edison Inc. accountable. This whole situation raises serious questions about whether the public can demand accountability from a private corporation.

"I don't think people in Noe Valley realize the seriousness of the issue," Rogow continues. "Many people at the March 27 board meeting who were Edison supporters were brought in on buses. As an individual who came to the meeting to listen, I had the sense that public opinion was being manipulated."

Dave Monks, who is president of Friends of Noe Valley and was president of the Noe Valley Democratic Club when the club made its endorsements for the November school board race, is also on the side of the school board. "I know that a lot of the parents seem very happy with the program," he says, "but I think the board members are dealing with a mandate from the voters to get Edison out of the public schools. Anti-privatization is the platform that these board members were elected on. They're just doing what the voters mandated them to do. I think they are looking for a mechanism to unwind the charter."

Monks says that when the Noe Valley Democratic Club made its endorsements last fall, the candidates' stance on privatization of schools was one of the topics they queried candidates about.

"And that goes for other organizations who made endorsements too," says Monks. "Nearly every organization out there asked candidates about it. It came down to the issue of what level do we want to have corporations involved in our public schools. We endorsed candidates like Jill Wynns and Eric Mar.

"I am concerned about the financial issues," he adds. "A corporation has to make money. How is Edison Inc. going to stay afloat? The project right now is exciting and new, but where is it heading? I have friends whose kids go to Fairmount, and they rave about the school, which is a public school. Why can't what works for Fairmount work at Edison? Philosophically, privatization doesn't sit right with me."

However, Lupe Hernandez, a Mission resident and parent of an Edison first-grader, is fearful of what could happen if the school board revokes the charter and Edison returns to management by the school district.

"Edison parents don't want the school to revert to what it was," she says, "and there's a large chance it will if the board does what it says it's going to do. I'm not here to change people's minds about what they think politically or philosophically. I just want a good school for my son."

She also says she can understand the Noe Valley community not wanting to get involved with Edison. "Previous to the charter, Edison was a really bad school," says Hernandez. "There was truancy, trash, the school was ground zero for trouble. It's really different now. It's not a perfect world at Edison, but it's good and intact."

Douglass Street resident Kitty Clark concurs. She transferred her daughter from Alvarado Elementary to Edison three years ago when it became a charter school. Clark also served as PTA president at Edison during her daughter's first year at the school. She has attended many of the recent school board meetings and spoken out and written letters in support of the Edison charter.

"All the controversy is so sad and seems to be never-ending," she says. "My daughter went to Edison for fourth and fifth grade and had a completely positive experience. The academic program at Edison is outstanding. I was so impressed with the staff and how well defined the program was. Other schools in the district do not have these standards."

Clark says that when she told other parents she was transferring her daughter from Alvarado to Edison, where she would be one of 14 Caucasian students out of a student body of 400, "their response was stunned disbelief. But at Alvarado, her test scores were dropping every year and she just didn't seem to be challenged. They weren't moving fast enough for her there."

Today, as a sixth-grader at Roosevelt Middle School, Clark's daughter is in the honors program and scoring high on standardized tests. "She was so ahead of the other kids in math at the beginning of the school year that she was asked to tutor some of her classmates," Clark notes.

"All the comments that I've read in the newspaper about Edison students acting out and everything, my daughter never experienced any of that. My evaluation of Edison is 100 percent positive. I can't speak highly enough about the teachers and the program. The students get lots of individual attention, and Edison has art and music programs, which the district can't support in most schools."

As for Edison's financial motives, Clark says, "I was president of the PTA and was able to look at Edison's books, and I can tell you that Edison is not getting rich off of this school. They have made a very big investment that really should be considered as a gift to a public school. I am a single mother who works as a bookstore manager. Edison is a school that definitely caters to children that cannot afford a private school."

Though she is sympathetic to Clark's plight, Marybeth Wallace, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood and a public school parent since 1985, remains on the opposite side of the fence. She attended the March 27 board meeting as an employee of Coleman Advocates and spoke out vehemently against the "arrogance" of Edison Inc. "They are pitting parents against the school district, and that is not right.

"I don't doubt that there are happy parents at the school," she says, "and that there are good things going on at Edison. However, there have been complaints against Edison, and it is the school board's mission to serve the district as a whole. We're not just talking about the 500 kids who go to Edison. We're talking about the 60,000 kids in the district. Edison has a lot invested in the school, but the corporation has not held up its end of the bargain."

Wallace claims, for example, that Edison's community council is not functioning as the decision-making entity on school policies and finances which it is required to be by law. Instead, the council meets irregularly and acts only in an advisory capacity, she says.

"This is not just about ideology," Wallace argues. "The only way to get Edison to comply and respond is by threatening to revoke the charter."

But most residents wish the school district had never gotten into this mess.

"I think the whole history of Edison is very sad," says Jane Reed. "When we moved here with our two kids 18 years ago, the people who had lived in the house previously had sent their daughter to Edison and said it used to be a great school. There was lots of parent involvement. Once busing started, the school fell apart. People in the neighborhood didn't send their kids there anymore. Now this is happening. I've read about the high teacher turnover and how the teachers are overworked....

"I wish Edison could go back to being a great neighborhood school for the Mission and Noe Valley," sighs Reed. "The current concept is interesting, but it doesn't seem to work. If teachers aren't happy, that's a serious problem. I don't know how Rooftop got to be so great, but that's the model that all the public schools should get back to."

Christina Moretta, a Dolores Street resident and mother of a 5-year-old son, says, "When I first heard about the charter, I was opposed because I like schools to be operated more at a grassroots level, and I haven't read great things about it since. Teachers are not happy there, and I feel bad for the kids to be stuck with having to deal with so much transition."

Moretta's son will begin kindergarten at Buena Vista Elementary next fall. "We didn't include Edison as one of our choices because I don't believe in charter schools and because I wanted my son to be in a language-immersion program like at Buena Vista. I'm thrilled he got into Buena Vista. I just don't think of Edison as a neighborhood school. I see Alvarado as more of a neighborhood school than Edison."

Even if the school board ultimately votes to revoke Edison's charter, parents like Lupe Hernandez have vowed to continue to fight for the school. "This debate has mobilized us," she says. "We're going to do whatever we can, but I won't say that this situation hasn't been hard. We have jobs during the day and children to care for at night. This is not what I expected when it was time to send my kid to school. I expected field trips and homework, but I didn't expect to be going to board meetings and fighting for the school to stay open as it is."

Perhaps Dolores Street resident Gloria Lee sums up the situation best: "I just hope the kids continue to get the education they deserve."