Pretty Cool for A School

Does the privately owned, for-profit Edison Schools have something to teach the public sector about how to build a classroom?

Not only is the EdLab not your father’s schoolhouse, it’s not one that you–nor most kids today–would recognize, either. There are no blackboards, no bookcases, no cartoon posters, no windows through which to ponder drifting clouds and daydream. This prototype classroom of the future, designed for Edison Schools by New York architect Leslie Gill in collaboration with graphic artists Doyle Partners and lighting designer L’Observatoire, is resolutely focused on technology. “Much of this [concept] stems from the philosophical belief that if you don’t have technology, you won’t be able to function in American society,” says Gill.

Edison Schools, based in New York, is a for-profit corporation (NASDAQ: EDSN) that operates 113 public charter schools around the country in “partnerships” with local school districts. Christopher Whittle, Edison’s controversial founder and CEO, is also known for launching Channel One, an educational cable news system that drew fire in 1989 by streaming advertising into classrooms (see “Balancing Act,” page 42). Edison plans to manufacture an undetermined number of EdLab modules, along with online courses and videos, and will begin introducing them throughout its network of 113 schools by 2003.

Gill took the job skeptically and then visited several Edison schools. “I was absolutely won over,” she says. “There’s a sense of community and a level of responsibility that you rarely see anywhere else. I rarely heard negative criticism. If somebody wants silence, they just raise a finger, and everyone waits for him or her to speak.”

Gill hired a contractor to build full-scale mock-ups of parts of the classroom as she worked on the design. The job progressed with blazing speed–five months from inception to three working prototypes installed in schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Wichita, Kansas; and Lansing, Michigan. “Having these full-scale mock-ups allowed us to be so much more creative,” Gill says. “We started with panels, then a corner mock-up 15 by 20 by 8 feet to test lighting. Our drawings would be taken directly into shop drawings by the general contractor and built in two or three days.”

The three prototypes are now in their second semester of pilot use. The Colorado EdLab was manufactured in New York and assembled on-site; local contractors built the others. All are modular assemblies consisting of a vertical steel frame, a translucent plastic wall liner, and furniture accommodating up to 60 students. Completely self-contained, they slip into existing building envelopes: The modular pieces of the EdLab are carried into the interior space cleared for them and assembled inside. The size can be juggled to fit the enclosure. (The Colorado box is 38 by 40 by 8 feet.) Inside, student desks lock into modular “pods” of four that form a work group. Every student faces a laptop computer with an online connection, and a big screen for video “distance learning” fronts the room.

So that the lighting can be totally controlled and used to manipulate both perception and mood, there are no windows. The walls, says Gill, “are not perceived as barriers, but as mutable boundaries [where] light, color, and transparency entice students to broaden their horizons.” Light can either illuminate the walls from behind or fall onto them, and the idea is to move the students’ perceptual horizons. “The physical boundaries are constant, but the visual boundaries are playing tricks with you,” Gill explains. “You’re trying to make young children understand a very amorphic sense of the world they live in. On one hand, they are there with their classmates and teacher, and that constitutes their orbit. On the other, the way they’re learning brings a very different sense of boundary. So abstractly, we’re trying to make that concept not frightening, but intriguing.”

Of the several classroom-management lighting schemes that L’Observatoire designed as part of the teacher’s “control center,” one creates a cocoon of light enveloping each pod, isolating it in a darkened classroom to build a sense of highly focused teamwork. Another pours white lighting toward the front of the room, focusing attention on the teacher.

EdLabs won’t replace all the spontaneity, clutter, and sense of individuality of traditional homerooms–nor were they intended to. EdLabs are “the new auditoriums, the special places within the school,” says Gill. In the pilot program, students meet in them for one period a day.

Fifth-grade teacher Tom Schuck uses a prototype EdLab at Roosevelt-Edison Charter School in Colorado Springs for a health-science unit called “The Human System.” He’s become a believer. “I think it’s the wave of the future,” he says. “I’ve never been a teacher who lust gets up in front of the class and talks, and this kind of structure really suits my collaborative style.”

Schuck typically will lecture for two to five minutes, then let the students work with their computers at their own pace as he wanders around and answers questions. The interactive classroom design, he says, frees him to offer much more individualized attention. And the technology-rich environment is exactly what his students need. Roosevelt-Edison is an inner-city school serving a lot of transient and low-income families that don’t have computing power at home.

What amazes Schuck most is the effectiveness of the lighting design. “Comparing it with other classrooms is like night and day,” he says. “I can have discipline problems in math class but when they walk in here, it’s totally different. When they’re working at their pods, it’s so soothing, you can just feel it in the air. They know [that] when that lighting comes on, it’s time to settle down and get the work done. There’s also an ‘enter-exit’ lighting scheme, and you should hear the noise level increase when that comes on.”

Schuck says he would rather not see Edison’s entire teaching strategy go into the EdLab environment. “I think the EdLab is great to have in the mix,” he says, “but to be in it all day would be a mistake.” At this point, EdLab is a petri dish in which to learn just how thoroughly the Edison idea of fully integrated teaching and technology can be realized. Gill sees even more in it, describing its concept in terms that are almost spiritual: The design objective is “to visually suggest worlds other than the world you’re standing in, but at the same time affirm the worth of you as an individual working at your pod or in the classroom.” As subjects in the experiment, Schuck’s Colorado fifth graders don’t exactly think in those terms, but they have an opinion. “The kids have a sense of ownership: ‘It’s ours, so we’d better take care of it’,” he observes. “And they think it’s cool.”

Christopher Whittle, founder, president, and CEO of Edison Schools, has tried to bring private-sector ideas to public education for most of his 30-year career. First, in 1970, he founded Whittle Communications, a Knoxville, Tennessee–based publisher of student magazines. Then, in 1989, he launched Channel One, a company that provided television equipment to public schools in exchange for the broadcast of an in-class television show, complete with paid advertisements. Critics shrieked that students should not be captive to commercials, and Channel One hemorrhaged money.

Whittle sold Channel One in 1994, while raising money for his new venture: Edison Schools, a for profit company which would pilot public schools. Eager to prove his critics wrong after the failure of Channel One, Whittle recruited former Yale University president Benno Schmidt as chairman of the company, and in August, 1995, Edison opened its first four schools.

Local school districts and public charter school boards contract with the company to take over individual schools in return for public per-pupil funding, which on average amounts to a little over $5,000 per student per year. As of November 2000, Edison was in charge of approximately 57,000 students in 113 schools in 27 states across the country.

The company has to balance business with academics. To fulfill its promises to parents and educators, Edison must keep teachers happy, and raise its students’ grades above those of students at other public schools. (Edison claims it has succeeded in this regard, but critics argue that no one outside the company has been allowed to analyze the raw data.) To satisfy its investors, the company must eventually turn a profit.

Edison’s business plan rides on cost savings it claims result from centralization. Because it administrates lesson plans, orders supplies, and pays salaries out of a centralized system, Edison isn’t burdened by the district-by-district costs associated with public schools. “If you have the same program going on in all the schools,” says John Chub, chief educational officer for Edison, “it’s easier to support.”

According to its SEC filings, Edison is desperate to cut costs right now. As of September of last year, Edison Schools had a deficit of at least $196.9 million. For each school it opens, Edison trains teachers, pays their salaries, buys books and materials, upgrades or builds facilities (Edison claims to have built 30 percent of its schools itself), and, after the first year of business, provides computers to each student above the second-grade level.

But while centralized management may help ease debt, it doesn’t necessarily sit well with teachers. At San Francisco’s Edison Academy, promised raises and reduced working hours couldn’t prevent more than 60 percent of the school’s teachers from leaving last summer. Teachers also complain that Edison’s cookie-cutter approach to curriculum defies one prominent contemporary educational theory: that lesson plans must be adapted to the learning patterns of each student, rather than being imposed system-wide.

Still, Edison has managed to infuse badly needed resources and hope into ailing school districts. But as the purse strings are pulled tighter by Edison’s creditors and the company’s critics howl at the windows, it remains to be seen whether the company can maintain its focus, or whether Whittle will retreat yet again.

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