Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 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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