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Special Report: Outcomes debated as school district resumes control of Turner Elementary

The Turner Elementary School privatization experiment in Wilkinsburg comes to a close tomorrow. How did it do?

Monday, June 29, 1998

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Will you be back next year?"

Turner Elementary School Principal Marlene Guy hugs Welton Johnson after he was crowned king at the school's Purple and Gold Ball. Shawntia Key, who was crowned queen, looks on. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

At Turner Elementary School in Wilkinsburg, children are asking teachers that question, and it's loaded with uncertainty.

Tomorrow, children and teachers will go to class for the last time at Turner, under the management of Alternative Public Schools. It was the first public school in the nation operated by a private company with its own staff. The company's task was to try to transform one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

When Turner opens again in the fall, the district will manage the school and hire the teachers.

It's just another chapter in a history of upheaval at Turner.

  Related article:

The Turner chronology

Three years ago, the teaching staff at Turner was ousted to make room for teachers hired by APS, a for-profit company based in Nashville, Tenn.

APS claimed it could improve the school, where tests scores were low and pupils were transient and mostly from low-income families. Despite a divided community, APS won a contract to manage Turner for five years, starting with the 1995-96 school year.

That set off a 2 1/2-year legal battle.

But in August, Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick declared the deal illegal and said the 1997-98 school year would be the last for what's been called the Turner School Initiative.

Turner, which has had two principals in three years, faces another change when the district takes over on Wednesday.

The district has offered jobs to 11 teachers who worked for APS, which is now part of Beacon Education Management.

"Our children need to at least see some familiar faces next year," said school board member Alice Williams, whose son attends Turner.

Turner will have the same principal, Roselyn Lesesne, that it had before APS arrived.

But Turner's staff will be smaller than it was with APS, which had assistant teachers -- many of them with college degrees -- in most classrooms.

Cathy Pascone, an APS teacher who has been offered a job in the fall, said, "I am very proud of what we did there. I hope whoever comes in sees our purpose is to educate children.

"What happened, happened. We have to move on."

Tiara Watson and Kevin Ford, right foreground, are among the students waltzing through the Purple and Gold Ball, one of the events marking the end of the school year at Turner Elementary. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Wilkinsburg Education Association president Mike Evans is among those from within the district who have asked to work at Turner.

"I think we need to try to come together to get the job done," he said.

APS classroom teachers will stay at Turner until July 14 to help in the transition. APS must be out of the building by July 21.

Remaining will be the computers and other equipment APS purchased, which the district bought for $167,000.

The company's auditors show a loss of $155,601 for the first two years of Turner's operation.

They don't expect a profit from Turner this year either, but the company has grown. While Turner was its first school, Beacon Education Management now manages three other schools, has consulting agreements with eight schools and has half-interest in a company -- JCR and Associates of Pontiac, Mich. -- that manages four schools.

Two key figures in the Wilkinsburg school district -- board president Karen Payne, who voted against the Turner Initiative, and school superintendent Joseph Tindal -- declined an interview about Turner.

But many others voiced strong opinions.

School board member Ray Griffith thinks the experiment exploded the myth that "one can turn public education over to the private sector where the profit people can be much more efficient."

Williams is sad it's over. She loves the school's academic and after-school programs and the teachers' willingness to go to parents homes or set up evening conferences.

Arleen Richardson, a staff representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said, "From where I sit, it looks like another fractured fairy tale. I think it was devastating for the community."

Some also blame Wilkinsburg's budget deficit on Beacon. But Wilkinsburg school business manager James Graham said that the per-pupil cost at Turner was less last year than that at the district-operated Kelly and Johnston elementary schools.

He thinks the Turner Initiative "may have added to (the budget problems), but it's not the cause."

This year's rate for Turner is $5,994 per pupil for an average enrollment of 401, but the total -- $2.4 million -- is expected to be adjusted because the school year is less than 212 days.

Then there is the effect on the teachers' contract. The union teachers have been working without a new contract for four years. While negotiations have resumed, the teachers this month took a strike vote. However, they haven't issued ultimatums.

A consultant's evaluation of how Turner fared educationally won't be available until late August.

But district and Beacon officials already signed a contract on May 28 that said they agreed that "APS and Beacon have been dedicated in their efforts at Turner School and that their performance has met the requirements of the contract to the extent possible under the circumstances."

Here are some of the promises APS made in the 1995 contract -- and the results.

A 212-day school year for pupils.

School was conducted for 212 days only during the second year. The typical school district year is 180 days.

A longer school day.

The building was to be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with instruction from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The school operated with those hours, although classes were dismissed at 2 p.m. Fridays for staff training.

A personal education plan for each pupil.

School officials say that was done all three years.

Multi-age classrooms.

While that was the case during the first two years, it was changed this year. Only the first- and second-graders are in multi-age rooms now.

Improve standardized test scores for pupils who attend the APS-run school for at least two consecutive years.

Test scores have not been analyzed yet.

Improve non-academic areas such as attendance and parent satisfaction.

One of the goals was to increase attendance from 91.6 percent in 1996-97 to 93 percent during a 180-day portion of this school year. But school officials said there were outbreaks of illnesses, including 68 cases of chicken pox, and the rate fell short of the goal, at 92.3 percent.

By comparison, attendance at the district-operated Johnston School is usually about 96 percent, according to principal Susan Heatherington.

Provide a family service coordinator.

A social worker and nurse worked together the first two years; a counselor was added to the team this year.

Provide classroom aides.

Assistant teachers have been provided in most classrooms all three years.

Turner opened under APS on Sept. 5, 1995, despite some community protests about private companies "profiteering."

The school district signed an amended contract on July 25, 1995, in the midst of a legal battle, including an injunction from Common Pleas Court calling the deal illegal.

Beacon and the district went ahead anyway as appeals were filed with higher courts, opening the school in short order.

Most of the teachers that APS hired were young and eager to find a teaching job in a tight market.

"There was no stability here at all when we came," said teacher Sandra Grassel, who was hired five or six weeks after the school opened. "If kids said to us, 'How long are you going to be here?' we couldn't say to them, 'Yes, we are going to be here.'

"Sometimes the kids would come in and say, 'Why are you still here? My parents told me the old teachers were coming back."'

But the state Supreme Court ruled, 4-2, in October 1995 that Beacon could operate the school while the legal battle continued. Inside the red-brick building, the teachers and other staff members formed a close-knit group, working long hours and supporting one another, with a goal to transform one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

"I don't think I'll ever work with a staff like this, with all we've been through, and so many people waiting for us to fail and our having a vision," said teacher Kelly Scheel, in her third year at Turner.

Elaine Mosley, who founded an innovative school in Chicago, was Turner's principal the first two years and helped design the Turner proposal. She said she found the level of anger, violence and disruption at Turner stunning during her first six months. There were 40 to 50 fights a day, not counting screaming, slamming doors and other disruptions. She said she sent each child home who fought -- and the child couldn't come back until the parent came to school.

"At the end of the first day, we all collapsed on the library tables. We just put our heads down. We were exhausted. It was very painful to see children in the state in which we found these youngsters."

Mosley can't say whether the children acted that way before APS took over or whether their behavior was due to the uncertainty.

But Mary Lou Whitezell, a retired Wilkinsburg special education teacher who taught at Turner before APS took over, said the school had been well-run. When APS took over, the pupils didn't have all of their supplies, knew none of the adults and were in unfamiliar multi-age classrooms, said Whitezell.

"The whole process was strange to the children, and I'm sure it was very upsetting," she said.

The Turner staff had to focus more on behavior than on academics for most of the first year of privatization. Some children came to school dirty and hungry. Staff members provided spare clothes and food and even shared their lunches or bought snacks for the classroom. Teachers were expected to encourage parental involvement, including visiting homes or meeting with parents late in the day.

"There are a lot of families I'm close with. That helps with self-esteem and academics," said teacher Sheila McElroy, in her third year of teaching a class of first- and second-graders.

McElroy welcomes pupils' phone calls at home, sometimes invites them to dinner and visits their homes. She figures she makes about 20 phone calls a day.

The staff "had absolutely done everything except shed blood to build an environment that was loving and warm and accepting and nurturing and inspiring," said Mosley.

For character development, the staff under Mosley emphasized the virtues of the Egyptian goddess Maat: truth, harmony, justice, reciprocity, propriety, balance and focus. Near the end of the first school year, some teachers were trained in and taught others about the "Second Step" program, which emphasizes self-esteem, problem-solving, role-playing and life skills.

"At the end of the first year, we could see that there was quite a turnaround taking place," said Grassel. "We made tremendous gains."

By the second year, teachers were able to pay more attention to academics, while still trying to meet children's other needs.

Although the court decision to close the school was made on Aug. 6, the school has been operating as if there were a tomorrow.

"It amazes me how everyone is still focused on the children," said teacher Jeannette Harris, in her third year at Turner. "We've been under a lot of attacks."

"Life still goes on, and the children see that," said teacher Renee Hill, in her second year at Turner.

Each year, the staff wondered whether there would be a new principal. Mosley had signed on for just one year but stayed for two. Mosley said Beacon couldn't find a replacement because the ongoing litigation made the school's future uncertain.

Mosley, who returned to the Chicago area to do consulting work, including a one-year independent contract with Beacon, said she regrets not agreeing to serve the length of the contract. She said continuity would have helped to have a profound settling effect on the school.

Partway through the second year, the founders of APS -- John Eason and Bill DeLoache, frequent visitors to Turner -- hired Michael Ronan, who became the company's executive eyes at Turner. As school superintendent in Uxbridge, Mass., Ronan had a reputation of building a cost-efficient system with significant academic improvement.

Turner parent Spencer Craig, a former school board member, said he thought the school began to lean toward "more of a bottom-line oriented philosophy."

Ronan said Beacon "did not in any way reduce the level of resources being expended" but that he focused on data and goals.

Marlene Guy, who then was principal of Richardson Elementary School in Washington, D.C., which closed last year, became principal last summer. Guy had a national reputation and had won a 1994 educational leadership award from Yale University.

Teachers -- some of whom had helped to create the new Turner School -- had to adjust to a new leadership style.

In her year at the school, Guy has added more structure to the school -- from inventories to data on pupil performance -- and encouraged even more parental involvement. More than 300 children and parents attended various events, including a father-figure breakfast.

Parent Debra Cox, who has two children at Turner and a ninth-grader who attended the "old" Turner, thinks the "new" Turner teachers communicated more clearly how parents could help in their children's education than the union Turner teachers did.

Guy brought in a new reading curriculum in some grades and made sure teachers were trained in a discipline program that kept written account of types of behavior. Three-page narratives of each pupil's progress, written by teachers, were shortened this year. Letter or number grades were also added to report cards. Parents still had to see the teacher to get the report cards.

With standardized test scores becoming increasingly important under the contract, Guy made sure teachers understood the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, the test used throughout the district to measure the school's success. Teachers were told to develop their own tests, using the same format as the standardized tests so pupils would be familiar with the style of questions. In the spring, the beginning of each day was spent emphasizing test-taking techniques. A pep rally was conducted to encourage pupils.

The tests were taken at the end of May, and the results aren't available yet. Guy said she believed there will be an increase in scores. Whatever the results, staff members hope people won't judge Turner on test scores alone.

"There's more to the school than these tests," said Harris. "These children needed a lot more than academics when we came here."

Some say Turner will have a lasting impact.

"I don't think the children and the community will ever be the same," said Mosley.

"I think the community understands and knows what's possible now. I think they know they can express what they believe is important for their children and can expect the district to provide it."

Williams believes the Turner Initiative has spurred improvement in other Wilkinsburg schools, such as the adoption of "Success for All," a well-regarded, intensive reading program that will be added to Turner in the fall.

Denise Edwards, a leader in the anti-privatization group known as Wilkinsburg Residents Against Profiteering and now a borough councilwoman, thinks the venture was costly. But, she added, "The impact is that it forces the community to solve its own problems. We need to spend more time focusing on solving problems and less time on looking for magic wands and silver bullets."

The initiative also might have had an impact beyond Wilkinsburg's borders. Dan Langan, spokesman for the state Department of Education, which has supported the state charter school law, said that Turner "sent a message that people are interested in doing things differently. I think more and more Pennsylvanians are interested in exploring these types of options."

Williams believes that Turner helped to encourage the passage of the state charter school law.

The judge used that same law -- which says a for-profit company can't operate a charter school -- as a reason for saying the Turner Initiative as illegal.

The Wilkinsburg School Board approved the Thurgood Marshall Academy Charter School, scheduled to open in 1999. Some of its organizers were associated with Turner.

Parent Spencer Craig, who is on the proposed charter school's board and is a former district school board member, thinks Wilkinsburg schools are poised for improvement.

"The ingredients are there for the district to make a big turnaround. We've just got to get all of the people together and work cooperatively to make it happen."

The Turner chronology

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