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Schoolhouse Rocked: S.F.'s Most Controversial Charter School Throws Off For-Profit Masters 

Wednesday, Jun 1 2011

Design by Andrew J. Nilsen

Stepping onto Edison Charter Academy's schoolyard, you would never guess this is the most contested turf in San Francisco public education. The chapters in Edison's history book have been dramatic: First, the shamefully failed public elementary school. Then the takeover by a company seeking to profit off public education. The high-profile attacks from the school district. The notoriety in the national media. And now, after a decade of controversy, the chapter you probably didn't hear about: the quiet mutiny by teachers against the corporation.

Despite that, on a recent afternoon, the school tucked between Noe Valley Victorians looks idyllic. Edison Charter Academy is hosting its annual Fiesta de Familia, and dozens of mothers sit on benches by baby strollers and chat in Spanish. A second-grade class of mostly Latino kids sings "The Fifty Nifty United States" — "Alabama! Alaska!" A Mexican folkloric dance group sashays in colorful skirts, a token blonde girl among the Latinas — one of the handful of white kids in the school. A seventh grader rushes up to hand a crumpled math assignment to his teacher, who says gracias and slaps him a sideways five.

Education in San Francisco reveals a city divided. The well-to-do and those-with-scholarships have defected for private schools — one in four of all city kids, to be exact. While nearly 42 percent of San Franciscans are white, only 11 percent of the district's students are, while Latinos, blacks, and Asians fill public classrooms in disproportionate amounts. That's especially the case at Edison, an outpost of the other San Francisco in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of white folks — few of whom send their kids to the school. Instead, most Edison students are Latinos walking up from the bordering Mission, or African-Americans riding in from the impoverished Bayview. Nearly 90 percent of the students pay a reduced fee at lunch, because of their parents' income.

But the days of this school being that school — another inner-city failure churning out dropout-prone kids — are long over. In 1998, after the then-locally run Edison elementary had resisted even the most extreme of overhaul measures, the superintendent handed it over to Edison Schools, Inc. — the company at the center of the early storm over charter schools. (That Edison Elementary and the company that took it over, now called EdisonLearning, share a name is coincidental.) The company promised it could teach kids more effectively than the school district had managed — all while making a, gasp, profit off the public dollars allocated for students. It promised a foolproof back-to-basics curriculum, accountability through regular testing, a disciplined environment, a longer school day, and access to a wide array of art programs.

Of course, a for-profit enterprise taking over an elementary went over with San Franciscans about as well as Home Depot staging a coup on the neighborhood hardware store. As soon as progressives got a majority on the school board, they "went after [Edison] with a pitchfork," as one charter lobbyist puts it. The board drew national media attention by revoking the school's permission to operate in the city. But the Edison company ran directly to the state for the go-ahead to continue functioning in hostile territory. The state granted this, and the relationship between the school and its bitter district was reduced to a schoolyard fight, albeit one that went on for a full decade. At one point the district wanted to boot Edison from its building to make way for a district school, but the company threatened to sue. Through the years, the district told the school to stop annoying the neighbors by letting teachers zoom through an adjoining alley in their cars, yet the teachers zoomed through just the same.

But little did the school district know that its grudge against the Edison company would be matched from inside the Edison school itself. Teachers and officials increasingly resisted applying the New York company's cookie-cutter formula to their local kids. Last spring, 12 years after the out-of-towners took over, Edison Charter Academy finally broke ties with the company and engineered a community school by its own design: that idyllic college-prep academy behind the Fiesta de Familia, a nonprofit aiming for small class sizes, individualized attention, and extensive arts classes most districts can only dream of.

EdisonLearning assured the school it couldn't succeed without the company when it learned about the school's moves to go indie. Two representatives told the board's president, Ed Kriete, "'We're going to do everything in our power to make sure you fail if you leave us,'" he recalls. "And I'm like, 'I guess our meeting is over.'" Edison's biggest trial yet had begun.

In the very beginning, there was failure. In the mid-'90s, test scores at Edison were in the pits. Kids fought. Administrators and teachers left year after year. In 1995, the school district gutted the school and hired an all-new staff of young, idealistic, largely minority teachers. "We used to call ourselves one of the loser schools," says Susie Spiegel, one of those teachers. But despite the desperate measure, test scores dropped after the first year, says Mark Sanchez, a teacher who jumped ship before the school went for-profit.

Then-superintendent Bill Rojas tried one last-ditch controversial move: handing the school over to be privately managed by Edison Schools, Inc., in 1998. The company had been founded six years earlier by entrepreneur Chris Whittle, best known as the creator of Channel One News, which leased TVs to public schools to broadcast a daily teencentric news program — and its commercials — to students. With his new charter management company, Whittle claimed that by applying economies of scale and labor efficiency to schools, he could make a profit from the money the government serves up for students while improving test scores.

The idea was blasphemous to the public education establishment, but won praise from school reformers and free-market conservatives. They figured if Whittle could have success where bureaucracy and union-laden school districts had failed, well, why not let the guy profit? Gap founder Don Fisher even donated $25 million for Edison to expand into California, where low per-student spending wasn't exactly a draw for profit seekers.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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