Peter Pringle's America: Profit and loss in the playground

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THEY buried Angel Jimenez last week in Brooklyn. He died from a knife wound to the heart, trying to wrench back his Mickey Mouse sunglasses from his schoolmate, John Rodriguez. The boys, both 15-year-olds attending special classes for potentially violent students, were on their way to a lesson on how to deal with frustration without losing control.

They had come out of a woodwork class at Junior High School No 125 on Manhattan's Lower East side, an area of unrelenting poverty and shabbiness, when the fight started. Rodriguez, according to another boy, pulled a dagger from his pocket, held it briefly behind him and then thrust it into Jimenez's chest. The four-inch double-sided blade pierced Jimenez's heart and he slumped to the ground.

The killing stunned school officials who thought they had seen it all. But this was the first time that a boy so young had been murdered in a New York school; a new and terrifying example of the city's battered, state-run school system, in which half the high-school students must walk through metal detectors to get to their desks. Classes are taught in churches, empty warehouses, even shower stalls because of the lack of space. New York is not alone. With the recession that has cut school budgets, Los Angeles school heads have seen the second campus handgun killing of a teenager in a month. In Chicago, 49 per cent of sixth graders, aged 12, came in the bottom quarter of a national test of basic skills.

Schools that fail to teach children how to read their way out of the ghetto are prompting big cities in the US to turn to the private sector. 'Schools for profit' run by businessmen in place of debt-laden schools run by the state has become a common refrain in US educational reform.

As the young Jimenez lay dying, a successful Tennessee businessmen named Christopher Whittle, who wears snappy suits and bow ties, was in the very different setting of the New York Hilton telling teachers from America's private schools of his plan to revolutionise US education by creating a chain of 'profitable schools' for average students. Liberal teachers, who would never have allowed the private sector to intrude into US state education a few years ago, are now thinking again and even applauding Mr Whittle.

Introducing his Edison Project - after Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb - Mr Whittle presents a seductive vision of well-funded, efficient schools with specially designed classrooms, teachers who earn bonuses for good work and pupils who learn Latin, three modern languages, have their own lap-top computers and take up art, music and exercise. He says he can do it for the same cost (or less) as state and local governments. Mr Whittle's goal is to have 2m students, or 4 per cent of the US total, by 2010. If they opened today, his experiments would cost dollars 4,800 in Los Angeles and dollars 7,800 in New York per student a year - the same as allotted by the state budget.

On Mr Whittle's team is the former Yale University president, Benno Schmidt, one of the most prominent figures in higher education. Sceptical that Mr Whittle can raise the dollars 2.5bn he needs, opponents in the 2 million-strong teachers' union call his project a 'con job'. But Mr Whittle retaliates by citing experiments in Baltimore and Miami, where the state system is already handing over management of technical and secretarial services to outside contractors who intend to make a profit.

It is hard to imagine how the worlds of the Jimenezes and the Whittles could ever intersect. To reach the school where Jimenez died you pass tenements filled with immigrants from the Caribbean and a filthy children's playground with broken swings and rusted slides. A sign announces: 'Children's Magical Garden: No Dumping, No Drugs'. Another pleads, 'Please No Garbage: Respect Our Children'.

Inside, Bill Ubinas, superintendant of the school district, met angry parents. It was a sad and ugly encounter, but Mr Ubinas, who conducted it in Spanish and English, was patient and understanding. His family is from Puerto Rico, just like the Rodriguez family. He fears the boys from the Dominican Republic, a majority in the school, will seek revenge on the 'perps'.

Far from being interested in Latin or lap-tops, parents were also worried about revenge. They demanded more security guards, police and metal detectors. 'What we need is to teach our kids to respect the guards; that's the only way to stop the violence,' one mother said. 'If my daughter doesn't show the guards respect, I'll just slap her.'

Mr Ubinas, a thoughtful man dedicated to state education, knows security guards are no solution, but he does not say so in front of the parents. After they have gone home, he throws up his hands and recommends starting from scratch. The whole system has to be restructured, he says, to get rid of the stifling old bureaucracies, the slow-moving committees and the lethargic education boards. Build new schools and and pour in more money. That's what Mr Whittle thinks, too. Dream on, fine educators, dream on.