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January 30, 2015

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School District wonders if for-profit education firm is worth the money


Leila Navidi

Gabriela Pace, center, and her fellow kindergartners have daydreaming time at Elizondo Elementary School in North Las Vegas on Sept. 29, 2011. Elizondo became an EdisonLearning-run campus in July 2011 as part of the district’s efforts to improve the struggling school.

In a time of austerity, the Clark County School District is focusing on a phrase more likely to be heard in a boardroom than a classroom: Return on investment.

Educational programs proven to raise test scores will remain. Those that don’t will be cut from a district reconciling a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

Currently on the chopping block is EdisonLearning Inc., a pricey for-profit education management company that is operating seven public elementary schools in Las Vegas. The New York-based company’s contract with the School District is set to expire June 30.

Founded in 1992, Edison operates nearly 400 schools — serving close to half a million students in 25 states, the United Kingdom and the Middle East. School districts would fork over state-allocated, per-pupil funding to Edison, which in turn would provide professional training, resources and curricula for teachers. (Edison teachers are still considered public employees, and Edison schools still have to meet state and national standards.)

Edison was ushered into the School District in 2001 under a five-year $30 million contract that promised to boost achievement among minority students from low-income households. The district renewed Edison’s contract in 2006 for another five years with an additional one-year extension.

As the extension sunsets, Edison’s fate hangs in the balance as the School District deliberates a new contract, assessing the company’s track record in Clark County.

The picture isn’t pretty.

The past 11 years saw a fiscal error that cost Clark County taxpayers $1.6 million, late philanthropy payments and lagging test scores that forced out the program at one middle school. Nationally, Edison has been criticized for privatizing the classroom and implementing a cookie-cutter approach to education.

However, recent surveys of Edison showed that the program is popular among some Clark County parents and educators who argue that Edison’s emphasis on a longer school day, teacher collaboration, monthly benchmark testing and more frequent parent-teacher conferences benefits students.

The Clark County School Board heard on Thursday the results from three parent surveys that demonstrated overwhelming support for Edison, but also less than impressive test score results.

According to the surveys — conducted in the latter half of 2011 by both the School District and EdisonLearning — parents and teachers who responded were highly satisfied with the Edison programs at Cahlan, Crestwood, Elizondo, Lincoln, Lynch, Park and Ronnow Elementary Schools.

Teachers supported Edison’s collaborative teaching method, which allowed them 40 minutes every day to devise lesson plans and review student data with peers. They also found Edison’s professional training to be helpful in guiding their instruction and the four parent-teacher conferences a year effective in getting parents engaged with their children.

Parents felt the schools communicated well with families and said that the curricula and instruction were effective. Nearly all the respondents — 99 percent — said they wanted to stay at an Edison-run school.

Although there have been gains in test scores at some Edison schools over the years, Edison schools as a whole have not delivered on their promise of higher student achievement, School Board members said, pointing to mixed test results.

Some Edison schools — such as Cahlan and Crestwood — showed positive improvement on test scores until the 2009-10 school year. Others, such as Ronnow, haven’t made adequate yearly progress in eight years. (Lagging progress at West Prep — formerly West Middle School — prompted the School District to oust the Edison program from the school in 2006.)

In comparison to 24 non-Edison schools with similar student demographics, Edison schools performed similarly or sometimes only marginally better on standardized tests, according to the School District. Last school year, five comparison schools made “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind — none of the Edison schools did. (About 90 percent of Edison parent respondents said they were content with their students’ proficiency levels and academic growth on the surveys, however.)

Despite some lackluster statistics, about 20 teachers and parents — wearing blue “CCSD-EdisonLearning” T-shirts — crowded the Edward Greer Education Center Thursday night to voice their support for Edison, and urged School Board members to approve a new contract.

Bailey McGuire, a six-year veteran teacher with the School District, said he favors the “data-driven instruction” at Elizondo, which became an Edison school in July 2011 as part of the district’s efforts to “turn around” the struggling school. Elizondo had not made sufficient gains on test scores for the past six years, but is on track to change that, he said.

“I’m proud of the growth at Elizondo, no doubt in part because of Edison,” McGuire said.

However, Edison schools’ questionable “return on investment” concerned School Board members. The School District is deliberating extending its contract with Edison between three and five years — the cost of which is expected in the millions.

“There are some things here that don’t make sense,” School Board member Chris Garvey said, of Edison’s test scores. “We would be remiss if we didn’t look at this. We have to be trustees of our resources.”

“We have to look at every nook and cranny and see where are we getting the biggest bang for our buck,” School Board member John Cole said. “We’re going to have to see a bigger commitment by Edison (to improve test scores).”

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  1. The question could be answered by the same way ALL schools are being held accountable: "looking at the data." How are the Edison Schools doing in the USA, are they consistantly meeting NCLB and Growth Model Standards? That should be the REAL calculation.

    Although Edison Schools here in Clark County are highly rated by their clients, parents and students, which is subjective, it is the actual RESULTS that should be the determining factor. There have been enough years to track student growth/progress, and either these students have succeeded in achieving the standards or they have not.

    The greatest factor the school district struggles with and just can't seem to get a handle on, are the students' home life/parents. That is the insurmountable factor that plagues every underperforming student that typically school employees just throw their hands in the air in despair saying there is nothing they can do about it.

    There is an answer to this insurmountable factor, and Superintendent Jones was hot on the trail when he began reclaiming lost students through HOME VISITS. Invest in THAT! In my own experiences, building that bond creates true care and investment returns in student growth: in both academic and social success and achievement. Students have increased growth and behavioral issues are put in check.

    PARENTS are a child's first and lifelong teacher. Let's do what we can to support them.

    Blessings and Peace,

  2. Isn't it a no-brainer to cut expensive programs that aren't working? They want to pay teachers less because kids can't pass tests, but they're putting money in a for-profit when students are not achieving?

    Absolutely, parents should be listened to, but the board also must consider that if a parent is involved, his or her kid is probably progressing, and therefore he or she is likely to be happy with the status quo.

    Try asking the teachers, both the ones there and the ones who've left. They are the professionals. Some may have seen the change from regular CCSD to Edison. They can give you a more detailed and relevant response than parents.

  3. What is wrong with this picture? The District is paying millions of dollars for marginal private sector education programs and they still plan to renew the contracts and ask for a bigger bang for their buck?
    Does this sound like the aggressive Dr. Jones we are coming to know and love? Talk of eliminating support staff jobs, calling for cuts from teachers, pronouncements of doom if teachers don't give concessions, yet the school board would continue to fund programs which are overall not very successful?
    Why? Because parents and students claim they like them even if they are not producing? The "data model" and teacher meetings are pretty much standard in the district now.
    Surely Dr. Jones would not allow cronyism anywhere in the district, would he?

  4. If I read the article correctly I believe it went like this.
    Parents approval---check
    Teacher approval---check
    Marginal gains but there are gains---check
    So tell me what is the problem?

  5. I have several questions about the parent survey. Who wrote the survey? If it was Edison, I would be concerned about the support. How many surveys were returned, and who returned them? Did only parents whose kids were doing well return the surveys? Which is more important, happy parents, or test results?