AIMS Renews Effort To Open Campus In Rio Rancho


WICHITA (TIME, Oct. 27) -- Orchard Hills is a neighborhood that seems to be several steps behind the times and half a step ahead of a trailer park. The people who live in this scruffy, working-class section of Wichita are mostly poor. Many of the streets are unpaved, and most of the one-story aluminum-sided cottages look as if they would blow to pieces in a stiff wind. Until three years ago, the local school was in equally sad shape, plagued by some of the lowest grades and worst attendance rates in the city. All of which might seem to qualify Orchard Hills as a spectacularly inappropriate spot to launch a bid to revolutionize American education.

Larry Vaughn, superintendent of schools in Wichita, thought otherwise. When a group of business people from New York City came to town in 1994 looking for a site for a privately managed, for-profit public school, Vaughn invited them to consider setting up shop in Orchard Hills. "We figured if their design worked there," Vaughn explains, "it would give us the leverage to go to almost any other school in our district and be successful."


By delivering the Orchard Hills school over to what has come to be called the Edison Project, Vaughn took a wager that only two other school districts in the country were prepared to risk at the time: he recommended that his board sign a contract permitting Edison to hire its own principal and teachers, manage its own budget and teach its own curriculum. In exchange the district would pay Edison about $3,600 a child, roughly the same amount it spends on its other 48,000 students. If Edison educated the children for less money, it could pocket the difference as profit. In return, Edison guaranteed improvement on standardized tests. If the district wasn't satisfied, it could simply terminate the contract.

By betting on Edison, Vaughn thrust Wichita into the front ranks of a bold and still controversial experiment in privatizing public education. America's first four Edison schools opened in the fall of 1995 in Wichita; Boston; Mount Clemens, Mich.; and Sherman, Texas. Three years and nearly two dozen new schools later, the debate continues. Despite warnings that privatizing public education is a recipe in which profit takes precedence over learning, the Edison Project is beginning to attract more serious consideration. Most of Edison's schools (25 altogether) are still too new to show definitive results, but initial reports from pioneers like Wichita suggest that the project may be on to something. By knitting together a new community of parents, teachers and students, Edison appears to be teaching children to learn more quickly, test better and master technology more smoothly than many of their traditionally educated counterparts. So far, it seems to be achieving this at no extra cost to taxpayers.

If all this sounds too good to be true now, it seemed downright ludicrous in 1991, when flamboyant media entrepreneur Chris Whittle announced his grand plan to build, by 1996, a nationwide chain of 200 private schools to revitalize American public education--for $2.5 billion. Because Whittle's communications company all but imploded in 1994, the Edison Project was radically scaled back, leaving education experts skeptical, lenders leery--and Larry Vaughn in a precarious position.

Vaughn nonetheless gave the project a green light. The man he entrusted with Wichita's first Edison school was Larrie Reynolds, a veteran principal and music teacher who harbored deep frustrations over the limitations of public education. That attitude is shared by many of the teachers Reynolds recruited for what is now called the Dodge-Edison School. Most are what Reynolds refers to as "flagship educators"--the best of the old system and some of the brightest prospects emerging from graduate school. He lured them with a unique scheme: teachers in small clusters would be given 90 minutes a day of development time; $10,000 in "dream money" to spend on everything from books to software programs and from camping trips to birthday parties; plus access to an electronics bonanza of laptop computers, classroom phones, voice mail, television sets, vcrs, computer stations, scanners and laser-disc players.

Equally enticing was the Edison curriculum, which brings together several top programs in reading, writing and math as well as in music, art and ethics. Although some components are uncommon--teaching a foreign language to kindergartners, for instance--few are unique. Many schools already use the highly acclaimed approach to math developed by the University of Chicago and the Success for All reading program put together at Johns Hopkins University. What is unusual is that Edison has brought some of the very best approaches to bear in one place. Because an Edison school day is nearly two hours longer and the school year lasts an extra six weeks, a student who goes all the way through high school in the system will have received an extra two years of education by graduation.

The school places enormous emphasis on technology. There is an Edison-owned computer in every student's house, which has helped create an extraordinary partnership among teachers, school and parents. Children are able to E-mail homework to themselves or their teachers, while parents can review their children's progress at home, communicate with teachers, and E-mail other parents on everything from head-lice alerts to debates over sex education.

The results are tangible. In two years, Reynolds' teachers have cut in half the gap in test scores between poor and affluent children. The school made similar headway in demolishing the difference between minority and white students' performance. Overall, Dodge-Edison's scores jumped more than 15% during its first year; in nearly every area, scores for its students not only caught up to but also surpassed the average in the district. While such results would be welcome anywhere, they are especially important here because if the school doesn't produce, Wichita can pull the plug. "We were on pins and needles," says Leslie Foster, who teaches a third-and-fourth-grade classroom, "but when the results came out, we were ecstatic."

Nevertheless, the school is young and the picture incomplete. Critics argue that the funds lavished on early "showcases" like Dodge-Edison will dry up as Edison investors begin demanding a return on their money. But in Wichita parents and teachers still marvel at what they see happening to their kids. When Beth Loos' son David started third grade at Dodge-Edison, he was unable to read, period. A year later, in fourth grade, he is reading at third-grade level. "Before I arrived here, I heard many negative things about the school," says Loos, who teaches Spanish. "Now I feel blessed to be here." Last week David read The Boxcar Children to his mom.

Rio Rancho, N.M.

Pointing the way toward a practical future

High on a windswept mesa outside Albuquerque, inside an imposing complex of ochre-tinted buildings, a group of 14-year-olds ponder their future. "I choose mechanical engineering," says Jamael. "You can earn six digits."

"I'd choose Taco Bell," Adam counters. "You hardly have to have an education, and you'd get free tacos." Across the classroom, Melissa tells Rory that a lawyer has more job security than a farmer; Rory, a farmer's son, points out that as a lawyer, "you'd be away from your kids a lot." Natalie speaks up for auto mechanics, because "you get to build your own car." Angela wonders, "Do you need to learn another language to be an architect?"

It may seem like idle banter, but Rio Rancho High School's Pathfinder course, modeled after similar ones in Florida and Illinois, is all business. Chalked on the blackboard are criteria for a debate on careers, including salary, benefits and required training. Later in the semester the teens will log on to Internet chat groups to discuss different occupations, and they will shadow adults during their workday. Before they go on to 10th grade, students must present portfolios on a possible career, explore their own strengths in detailed resumes and outline a study program for three years and beyond. "This isn't just about 'What I want to be when I grow up,'" says teacher Chris Fanelli. "It's about what's required to get there."

"Relevant" may be one of the biggest cliches in education. But it was the watchword in working-class Rio Rancho (pop. 50,000) when, nearly three years ago, faced with a dropout rate of 28%, the town set out to build a model high school. A committee of 300 citizens, ranging from students to business leaders, split into groups to delve into curriculum, architecture, teaching methods, scheduling, technology, dress and behavior codes. They plumbed research from educational institutes and visited 30 innovative campuses from California to Maine. The common theme: students are bored in "shopping-mall high schools," where they take a smorgasbord of courses with no focus.

So Rio Rancho High School, which opened in August with 2,050 students, divided its campus into five academies, an outgrowth of the expanding school-to-work movement that seeks to focus students on eventual careers. Freshmen, who are often lost in the anonymity of a large institution, have their own first-year academy. Older students choose from humanities, science, fine arts, and business and technology. Each academy is in a separate building, with outdoor staircases leading to a courtyard amphitheater. And each ties in with local employers who offer guidance and even internships. "Kids want to see the relevance of what they are learning," says superintendent Sue Cleveland. "They want more real-life experience."

Across the country, hundreds of high schools are offering career-oriented programs. But Rio Rancho may be unique in combining so many cutting-edge reforms, requiring all its students to adhere to them and designing a campus that is radically different looking from the ground up. The fine-arts academy houses a 650-seat theater. The science academy features a greenhouse. The humanities academy offers a publishing lab. And with three to five state-of-the-art computers per classroom (938 machines in all), every teacher is encouraged to use them in lessons. "In traditional high schools students leave class to do a 'technology' lab at a set time," says Kim Bannigan, head of the business-and-technology academy. "But computers are part of daily life. We need the same seamless access in the classroom as in the workplace."

In Carl Brady's chemistry class, 15 students cluster around five computer terminals, taking turns analyzing the nuclear decay of elements. "That's the isotope!" Brady says, monitoring their efforts on an overhead screen. "I need to see that on your scattergrams. Did you save that to the hard drive?" Brady, a former Navy fighter pilot, went into teaching only two years ago. "Here's their homework," he says with undisguised delight as he holds up a stack of discs. "This amount of technology in one classroom is unheard of, but no matter what job they go into--whether auto mechanics or nuclear physics--they'll use computers."

The high-tech emphasis is fitting for a town that houses Intel's main semiconductor plant. In fact, mega-chipmaker Intel built the $30 million school to offset tax breaks in an $8 billion industrial-revenue-bond deal with Sandoval County. However, its concerns are larger: "How do you graduate a computer-literate student who also has problem-solving and interpersonal skills?" asks Intel site manager Kathleen Taylor. Rio Rancho has taken the hint: its teachers are asked to "coach" and to "guide"--rather than simply to lecture, and students are divided into teams to perform projects.

But money and technology alone do not guarantee academic excellence. Inspired by Breaking Ranks, the 1996 high-school-reform manifesto published by the Carnegie Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Rio Rancho school demands a tougher core curriculum, requiring four years each of math, science, social sciences and English, with 29 credits needed for graduation--seven more than the state norm. Before this year Rio Rancho's students attended other area high schools, says principal Katy Harvey, "and it was horrifying to look at transcripts full of credits like ceramics and basketball theory. They'd go to college, flunk out and find themselves without job skills." Rio Rancho tailors core subjects to students' interests: a humanities course in the business-and-technology academy examines the history of the oil industry; fine-arts-academy students look at the Nazi plundering of paintings. Consistent with the trend known as "integrated curriculum," history and literature are taught in the same humanities course, allowing a smooth transition from Colonial politics to The Scarlet Letter.

What makes that easier is another reform that has spread from Canada to hundreds of U.S. schools: 4 x 4, or block, scheduling. Instead of students' rushing from one 50-minute period to another six times daily, work is divided into four periods of 85 minutes each; a year's worth of each subject is covered in a semester. Teachers see fewer students each term and get to know them better. A lecture, a discussion and a hands-on project can take place all in one period. "It's more interactive," says Rudy McDonald, 16, lounging in the sunny courtyard during lunch. "It's not just teachers telling you something and you spitting it back."

Rio Rancho teachers--all of whom had to write three essays on school reform as part of their job applications--will try almost anything to avoid that glazed-over look. On a recent afternoon John Henderson dictates to his writing class, "An alien landed at Rio Rancho and saw..." Each student is to continue the story for a sentence or two. "And when I say, 'Stop!,'" Henderson explains, "pass your paper to the next person." The hilarious results are intended to convey something about character development and narrative, if only by their absence.

"Students may not be able to physically drop out at 14," says Shari Gonzales, head of Rio Rancho's first-year academy, "but mentally they can." After two months, it is too early to tell if Rio Rancho will prevent that. But if education reforms are worth anything, this high-desert incubator, perched Acropolis-like over the Rio Grande Valley, means to show and tell. --By Margot Hornblower/Rio Rancho

San Francisco

A classroom in which you can speak your mind

In Elaine Lewinnek's all-girl sixth-grade social-studies class, the Venus of Willendorf's bulging stomach and hips were a hot topic. A picture of the fertility goddess from 25,000 B.C. stimulated a lively discussion about how ideals of feminine beauty have changed through the centuries. Then a boy came into the classroom to collect attendance slips. "Stop! Stop! There's a boy in the room!" several girls shouted. The conversation halted until he left.

To Lewinnek, it was a clear demonstration of how girls may learn better without boys. Marina Middle School in San Francisco, where Lewinnek teaches, is one of only a handful of U.S. public schools that are trying single-sex education for some students. It's too early to pass judgment. But already the teachers are enthusiastic. So are their female pupils. "If there were boys, I'd be scared to talk out," says 12-year-old Genora Turner. "I'm learning better in this all-girl class."

That is exactly what single-sex advocates expected to hear. Roughly speaking, until they reach their teens, American girls outperform boys. Then something changes, and boys push ahead, especially in science. Whether the cause is bias, genes or some combination, no one knows for sure. But if you can just keep the sexes apart for a while, the theory goes, girls at least may benefit. "It's good to have a safe place without the distraction of the opposite sex," says Lewinnek.

Encouraged by a few studies supporting the idea, Marina Middle School principal John Michaelson organized all-girl and all-boy classes for the first time last year. In contrast to the monastic approach of some private schools, like the Catholic high school Michaelson attended, Marina doesn't segregate girls and boys into separate schools or even separate buildings. In fact, only about 105 of Marina's 810 students are separated so far; the rest attend typical coed classes. Michaelson started the single-sex experiment by setting aside two rooms within the hulking blue-and-white Art Deco edifice--one for 30 seventh-grade boys and one for 30 seventh-grade girls. While boys and girls in these single-sex "academies" spent most of the day apart, they mixed during one or two elective periods and socialized during lunch. "This way the kids get the best of both," says Michaelson.

Though seventh-graders in Marina's single-sex program had the option of switching to coed classes, few did. At year's end the results were encouraging. "In general, their attention was more on their academic activities," says Lorraine Perry, 50, who taught science and math in both single-sex academies last year. As Perry hoped, the girls flourished away from male competition. The surprise was that the boys thrived too. "They were a little more open," says Perry, "to admitting that they didn't understand something than if there had been girls in class."

Based on last year's experience, the school district decided to expand the program to the sixth and eighth grades this year, using a $500,000 grant from the State of California--one of three handed out for single-sex programs. In doing so, it hopes to confirm the hypothesis that students in the single-sex classes do better than their coed peers

Small classes are one of many variables that make comparison difficult. While kids in the single-sex program benefit from a higher ratio of guidance counselors to students, they may suffer because many of their teachers are green, hired almost straight out of graduate school for this program. Another factor: the program aims to attract underachievers, on the theory that they have the most to gain. To sort through these conflicting elements, the district has hired statistical experts from the University of California, Berkeley.

Much will rest on their findings. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating charges by the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union and others that New York City public schools violated boys' rights to equal access by setting up an all-girls school. "In general, we're opposed to single-sex classrooms because studies show that in the long term, where boys and girls are separated, more resources are devoted to the boys," says Stacey Karp, president of NOW in San Francisco. So far, no one has challenged Marina's program.

Despite these objections, San Francisco hopes to continue its pilot program at least through next year. "I think we're compelled to come up with a variety of choices for students and families," says Michaelson. "It's arrogant to assume that any student is going to learn in a standard way." Schools that separate boys from girls will not help every distracted student, but they may be the answer for some. San Francisco

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Source : http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1997/10/20/time/special.scratch.html

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