As with most education reforms, it will take years before researchers can declare this one a success or a failure. But throughout the school year, TIME has followed three individuals who have been at the center of this ambitious experiment: fifth-grade teacher Marla Blakney, seventh-grade student Shaliah Denmark and elementary school principal Anita Duke. All three spent the past nine months in Philadelphia public schools that had been taken over by for-profit operators. Their experiences tell a more nuanced story than the one predicted by privatization's cheerleaders and critics when TIME first wrote about them and their schools last fall.
When Edison Schools, the New York City based company that is the largest of the for-profit firms, was awarded 20 Philadelphia schools to manage last spring, student protesters waved signs that read I AM NOT FOR SALE! SAY NO TO PRIVATIZATION! But by the time an Edison team arrived at Harrity Elementary School in the poverty-ravaged southwestern part of the city last September, the staff was ready to try anything. "It couldn't have gotten any worse," says Marla Blakney, a raspy-voiced fifth-year teacher who has an exceptionally warm rapport with her students. "We were so sick of failing."
In the first month of school, Edison introduced new math and reading programs, reduced the size of reading classes, eliminated some nonteaching staff, added more time for teacher training and brought in a computerized monthly testing program. "They were so much in our faces in the beginning," says Blakney, a former accountant. "I have never worked so hard in my life, including in the corporate world." As her school's math coordinator, Blakney was charged with mastering the challenging new math curriculum and teaching it to her colleagues. She also ran the math club and served on the school's leadership team, which makes instructional and discipline decisions. Like all the other teachers at the Edison schools, she was trained in new techniques the use of cheers, chants and catchphrases like "three-inch voices"--designed to help keep a class orderly without resorting to drill-sergeant discipline.
Not all of Edison's reforms have stuck. Blakney was enthusiastic about the company's innovations last fall, but her use of the chants and cheers waned over the months, and by midyear the extra hours she was spending out of the classroom for training seemed excessive. "I'd rather be with my kids," she says. But Edison's mandated monthly testing of her students has become Blakney's favorite new instructional tool, because it allows her to efficiently track her class's learning. Whipping out her laptop, she shows a visitor the scores her students have achieved and how they stack up against those of the school's total student body: all at Harrity are making progress, but Blakney's pupils are improving just a hair faster. Kid by kid, Blakney can look at any mathematical concept she's trying to teach adding fractions with different denominators, for example and see who understands it and who needs more help. "I can tailor my teaching accordingly," she says. "And I can show the kids. Children want to know 'How am I doing?'"
If her students and the others at Harrity do well on the year-end tests and Blakney thinks they will she will give much of the credit to the school's new principal, Johnetta Smith, whom Edison chose for her success in the similarly beleaguered Washington system. The Harrity staff calls Smith "the lady with roller skates" for her seeming ability to be everywhere in the building at once. Blakney says she likes the fact that Philly schools chief Vallas will let Edison keep all 20 of its schools. "I have taken Vallas' lead," she says. "So far he's standing by Edison, and so am I."
Shaliah Denmark wore a pressed blue uniform to her first few weeks of seventh grade at Shoemaker Middle School, an imposing five-story fortress in down-at-the-heels West Philadelphia. At 12, Shaliah was starting middle school with low reading scores and a habit of chatting too much in class. But ebullient and with a sweet smile, she talked last fall of hoping to make the honor roll, of liking math. At home she trailed her mother Tanya around the kitchen, reading from homework assignments as Tanya cooked dinner. By this spring, however, the seventh-grader had ditched the uniform--"Wearing the same color every day wasn't doing it for me anymore"--was earning mostly Ds and had been suspended twice for fighting. The principal eventually taped Tanya's phone number under her computer keyboard because they talked so often. Tanya says her daughter was targeted by a rough group of girls and suffered beatings, teasing and having a juice carton full of urine tossed at her. "I fear for her life in that school," the worried mother says.