ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001

The children at the Edison Friendship Junior Academy don't memorize vocabulary or definitions, but they do end up learning facts—and a lot more.  

By Wray Herbert

Photographs by Linda CreightonThe contrast is startling.

Outside on 19th Street, most of the row houses are boarded-up shells, and discarded tires, broken liquor bottles and other trash fill the empty lots. Within 50 yards is the main drag, Benning Road, where the dreary-looking shops include Sylvia's Liquors, a check-cashing store, and fast-food shops like Wings 'n' More Wings. It's a rough neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C.

But the interior of Edison Friendship Junior Academy is a picture of order. The freshly painted trim in the corridors is color-coded to delineate the four "houses"—the groups of about 180 students each to which the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders belong. Within the houses, smaller "teams" of students travel together from class to class, moving with discipline but also with an obvious sense of relaxed camaraderie throughout the day.

All together, 700-plus middle-schoolers wear the school uniform that shows they are part of this two-year-old charter school, one of four that the for-profit Edison Project now runs in the District of Columbia. The school "uniform" is an apt metaphor for the values and attitudes embodied in the Junior Academy—also known as the Blow Pierce Campus—and for that matter in the 113 schools that Edison, a private manager of public schools, runs nationwide. It's not at all stiff or militaristic, but rather a uniform in the broadest sense. All the kids wear khakis and either a white or navy top; but while some choose starched white shirts, others wear polo shirts or even plain white T-shirts. Many opt for the hooded navy sweatshirts bearing the name of their school.

This mix of discipline and relaxation can be seen in the classrooms as well. In Virginia Allen-Mazique's 8th-grade science class, for example, the kids are studying pulse, part of a larger biology unit on "Dynamic Body Systems." The main idea that Allen-Mazique wants the students to grasp is that the human body is not a static organism, that things like pulse (and heartbeat and temperature) rise and fall in different circumstances. So on this day she has the kids run a simple experiment. They use watches to measure their pulse while sitting at the lab tables. Then she has them stand and run in place for a minute ("Come on, you senior citizens! Move it!" The kids are clearly enjoying this part.). Then they measure their pulse again, and graph the data points on graph paper. Finally, they discuss the difference between resting pulse and exercising pulse. Why are they different? What would sleeping pulse likely be? How about during a nightmare? What does it mean if your resting pulse and exercising pulse are not all that different? Did you measure wrong? Were you slacking? And on and on.

Experiment is one of the five "E's" that make up the standardized science curriculum that Edison has adopted throughout its schools: It begins with Engage (Allen-Mazique's students dilated their eyes to introduce the idea of body dynamics) and ends with Evaluate, in which the students discuss and synthesize the fundamental concepts that they have drawn from their experiences in the preceding week or so. Students don't memorize vocabulary or definitions—although they do end up learning facts, emphasizes Edison's national curriculum director Valerie Levenberg.

Fundamentals Come First 

Indeed, despite Edison's emphasis on creative thinking and hands-on learning, the schools do not underplay the importance of basics, or what Levenberg calls "automaticity." This can clearly be seen in Karen Adams' 7th-grade mathematics class. It's Monday morning, and the kids are easing into the work week with a game called "I have . . . Who has?" Adams has distributed note cards to all the students, and a designated student starts the game by reading, for example, "I have 39. Who has 6 less?" A student across the room will respond, "I have 33. Who has 2 times that?" "I have 66. Who has that divided by 8 plus 3?" And so on. The game is designed so that, if no one makes a miscalculation, every student will read his or her card aloud.

"I have . . . Who has?" serves two purposes. First, it hones automaticity of basic mathematical skills—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—and tests it with a game based on speed and good-natured competition. Adams uses her wristwatch to time the students, and if they finish the sequence without error she records a time for the team. In this case, the class—Team 24—has lowered its best time from 4:52 to 3:09, a significant improvement that puts them in good position to outperform the other 7th-grade math teams.

To compete well in the game, however, students must not only know their fundamentals well; they also need to pay close attention, performing every calculation to see if they hold the next answer. Adams encourages a certain level of team exuberance, but the game also demands focus, and thus works as a friendly form of classroom management.

This kind of nonthreatening classroom management can be seen throughout Edison schools. In Allen-Mazique's 8th-grade science class for example, the students all sit at lab tables, three to a table. In front of each student sits an inverted plastic cup—one red, one blue, one clear. The student with the red cup is the "manager," which means he or she is in charge of listening to the other two, responding, and using all their ideas in coming up with a team solution to whatever problem is in front of them. The blue cup sits in front of the "communicator." This is the only student of the three who can talk to Allen-Mazique, asking a question or reporting a solution. In this way, Allen-Mazique says, the students manage the classroom: Like the school in general, the science class is abuzz but focused, not in the least chaotic.

In many ways, the educational philosophy and practices seen at Friendship Edison Junior Academy reflect the philosophy and practices of all Edison charter schools. As principal Vonelle Middleton points out, one could visit an Edison school in Sacramento or Dallas or Washington, D.C., and see the same basic classroom practices being used; two fingers raised, like the '60s peace sign, is the universal Edison sign for "zero noise," for instance. The same is true of the Edison teachers' balance of order and discipline on the one hand, and compassion and joyful engagement on the other. Edison courted Middleton in Kansas City, Missouri, where she had used such an approach to turn a difficult school into one of the top five urban schools in the nation.

The math and science curricula are also prescribed by Edison's national headquarters for all Edison schools. Both math and science curricula are research-based curricula developed at the University of Chicago, and both have proven results with improving student achievement. On the Stanford achievement test in math, for example, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Junior Academy all increased approximately 7 to 8 percentage points on a national scale from fall 1999 to spring 2000. The curricula cover kindergarten through 12th grade. Edison also runs two elementary schools in Washington—which feed into the Junior Academy—and a new Collegiate Academy, to which most Junior Academy 8th graders will move when they graduate. So Edison students in Washington have the opportunity to move through a single, integrated course of study from the beginning of their formal schooling through high school graduation.

Whether it's elementary school, middle school, or beyond, Edison teachers are all trained to emphasize communication and discussion. In Adams' 7th-grade math class, for example, students are being introduced to basic concepts in geometry. But rather than have them simply memorize the definitions of angle, ray, and degree, Adams asks the students to talk about the concepts in their own words. "In plain English, what's an angle?" she asks. "Two lines coming together," one student offers. "Good. And what's another way?" she continues. According to Levenberg, talking about mathematics is one of the Edison math curriculum's major teaching strategies. When students answer a problem correctly, they are asked, "What's another way you could come to the same answer?" The idea is to learn that there are alternative ways of reasoning to the same conclusion.

Despite the uniformity of curriculum in Edison schools, however, there is also room for local variation and classroom innovation. Allen-Mazique, for example has worked out an arrangement where her science students can visit the molecular biology laboratory at nearby Catholic University of America once a month. There they study the latest laboratory procedures of biotechnology, using them to test their own blood samples for AIDS antibodies and sickle cell anemia (99-plus percent of Junior Academy students are African-American.).

Technology Based

There are some bedrock principles that Edison administrators insist on in all its schools, and which can be see on display at the Junior Academy. One is technological literacy. The Edison project was launched and is still headed up by Chris Whittle, a longtime advocate of using technology to enhance classroom learning. Like other Edison schools, all of the classrooms at the Junior Academy are equipped with computers, as are all the teachers, and every family of a student (grade three or higher) is supplied with a state-of-the-art home computer. Everyone in the school is linked to what's called The Common, Edison's intranet message, conferencing, and information system.

Equipping Edison families with home computers comes with a quid pro quo: parental involvement. Any student in Washington, D.C. is eligible to attend charter schools such as the Junior Academy, but students must apply—which helps ensure that they are motivated, principal Middleton notes—and parents of entering students are required to sign a contract. Part of the contract requires that parents take six hours of computer training, so that they as well as their children are computer-savvy.

Parents must also agree to come into the school each quarter to discuss what's called the Quarterly Learning Contract, or QLC. The QLC is a narrative evaluation of the student's academic performance in each class, backed by a student work portfolio. The evaluation is used to look forward and plan specific academic goals for the next quarter. According to Levenberg, Edison schools refuse to "dumb down" the curriculum for any student, but they also recognize that their students are often not the most privileged, so they make a commitment to supplying the resources to help students succeed.

One of those resources is extra time. In contrast to the typical public school student, Edison students attend class from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon—a full hour longer—and they also have a longer school year. Edison students start the academic year in mid-August, and go to school 200 to 205 days, in contrast to the 180 days required by law for public school students. Over a 13-year school career, this means that Edison students spend the equivalent of four additional years in school—time that allows for the kind of hands-on scientific experiments the curriculum is based on. It also cuts down on "summer forgetting" and the time-consuming review that eats up so much of the typical student's first month back at school. In addition, each house of students is assigned to four to six teachers who remain with those students throughout their academy experience, providing a continuity that reinforces the continuity of the curriculum.

The teachers' engagement with their students is evident in every Edison classroom. So is their commitment to push their students toward creative thinking. Haroldine Pratt's 8th-grade math class is a good example. The students are studying the interior angles of various figures: 4-sided, 6-sided, 11-sided. After they learn to compute the sums, Pratt gives them a homework assignment—not to solve problems, but to make up problems. "How about a figure with n²-l sides?" she asks. "Go home and do something strange."

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.