A Lesson in Mismanagement

The Edison Project took over Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary School, promising big improvements. So far it's created a big mess.

It was late February when Madeline Norgan received social studies textbooks for her first-grade class at Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary School. Until then the 26-year-old teacher had been using "trade books," including biographies of historical figures. She supplemented these books with some $300 worth of exercises, worksheets, and other supplies she had bought herself.

So when Norgan, with less than three months left in the school year, got the social studies books all first-grade teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools use, she asked academy director Nancy Rubin if she was supposed to start teaching from the new books.

"Ms. Rubin told me to use them as long as the Edison Project people and the [Miami-Dade County Public Schools] auditors were there," says Norgan, a second-year teacher. "And that once they left, I could do whatever I wanted to do."

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Read Related Story, "Lesson the Damage"

Norgan knew the auditors were coming. She was among the five Reeves teachers who complained in late January to the school district about the woeful state of the finances, academics, and technology at the three-year-old elementary school at 2005 NW 111th St., in Northwest Miami-Dade. Like her colleagues Norgan laid blame for the school's problems squarely with the Edison Project, the New York City-based, for-profit education company that operates Reeves in partnership with the school district.

The disaffected teachers' concerns had not fallen on deaf ears. After they brought their complaints to school board member Manty Sabates Morse, then to deputy superintendent for school operations Eddie Pearson, the district moved quickly to check out their allegations. This increased scrutiny galvanized the Edison Project, which had already invested $1.5 million in the school, to throw more money at the specific problems Norgan and the other teachers had spelled out.

It was during this flurry of activity that Norgan received the social studies texts. Edison's academic plan calls for using trade books instead of textbooks, but Edison bought the social studies books during the 1997-98 school year at the urging of the school district. For most of the 1998-99 year, though, they remained under lock and key, unused -- until teachers complained downtown.

Rubin denies telling Norgan or any other teacher to use the social studies textbooks for the benefit of district review teams. She adds that the texts have always been available. "My thing is, whatever works in the classroom," she says. "I would never tell someone how to teach their class."

The book episode convinced Norgan that Edison was only interested in finding a cosmetic solution, if not conning the school district outright.

"They also fixed my schedule to one hour of Spanish a day; it had been 40 minutes every other day," she remembers. That one hour of Spanish is supposed to be a defining characteristic of the curriculum the Edison Project has instituted at 51 public schools nationwide. Others include a longer school day, home computers for students, and computers in every classroom. So in changing her Spanish schedule, was the Edison Project determined to start keeping one of its main promises to the children and parents of Reeves Elementary?

"I was told that it was just for that week," Norgan says. "They said, 'When the auditors leave, go back to the regular schedule.'"

Those auditors have come and gone. Higher-ups from the Edison Project, several teachers say, arrived before the auditors, stayed for the auditors' visits (often accompanying the school district personnel on their inspections), and have remained in the school ever since. Edison officials categorically deny that they tried to hoodwink school district auditors. "No effort was made to shade the conclusions of the audits or limit what they could see," states Chris Cerf, chief operating officer for the Edison Project in New York City. "I think it is an insult to Dade County Schools to suggest that they could be manipulated this way."

Still the constant presence of Edison personnel in the school leads some to conclude that the home office has effectively taken control of the school away from its principal, Diane Dyes-Paschal. This principal was, in fact, assigned to Reeves in order to take control: She was supposed to rescue the school from the shambles that was the first year of the Edison experiment. Although even her detractors acknowledge that Dyes-Paschal turned the school around, some assert that she has gone from being part of the solution to part of the problem.

Auditors are not the only district personnel scrutinizing Reeves Elementary. Most of the complaints Norgan and the other four teachers made had to do with their own classroom problems and Dyes-Paschal's absences. Norgan, though, made a far more explosive accusation: that first-grade teacher Mariefrance Milhomme was beating her students with a stick.

The consequences of that charge have unfolded in the pages of the Miami Herald and on local TV news. After interviewing parents and children at Reeves, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police arrested Milhomme on March 1, charging her with felony child abuse. A week later at her arraignment, the State Attorney's Office declined to press charges, but Milhomme still faces possible disciplinary action from the school district, whose rules expressly forbid corporal punishment. The Edison Project also prohibits spanking at all its schools.

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