After Bailout, Privatization, School District Starts Over

July 2, 2005 — -- A state basketball championship would have been one of the highlights of the year for any school. But for the students in the Chester Upland School District, one of the lowest-rated schools in one of Pennsylvania's most depressed communities, it was a rare occasion to shine.

Graduation should have been a highlight, too. But for many, it was simply a relief to close out a school year that started with a riot and ended with most of the school's leadership on the way out.

Noel Wilmore, a Chester High student, described life at his school: "First thing you notice is the class size. And the lack of interest in the work. Here, you know, there are just some people who just really don't care at all."

A Private Takeover, But Little Progress

Chester was once a thriving shipbuilding town and the economic engine of Delaware County. Now it is home to rows of abandoned shops and grinding poverty.

In 1994, the Chester Upland School District faced a multimillion-dollar deficit and was taken over by the state of Pennsylvania. State officials replaced the much-criticized school board with a three-member control board and by the year 2000, a private company, Edison Schools, won a contract to run eight of the district's nine schools.

At that time, Chester Upland School District ranked last out of 500 schools in the state.

But despite the changes, little improved in Chester's schools. Last year, only 17 percent of seniors were proficient in reading and 6 percent were proficient in math, according to a state standardized test.

The low scores have been accompanied by a never-ending stream of crises and problems. Chester High has seen four different principals in the last year, and a state bailout was needed to pay teachers through the school year. Last September, a cafeteria fight ended with 28 students under arrest.

"We don't have books and the teachers are inconsistent with their teaching abilities," says graduating senior Aigner Cleveland, "There are a lot of people saying they're going to do this and that, and it's not getting done."

Shakuwra Randolph, who next year will become the first in her family to go to college, described a chronic lack of basic school supplies. "All the other schools got everything, why don't we?" she asked. "We want teachers. We want books."

A Promising New Principal, Then More Disappointment

When Edison Schools took over it was part of a bold initiative to turn things around, but complaints of disorganization and lack of resources continued.

"Since Edison's been here, students have not been allowed to take books home," says Control Board member Granville Lash, "How can you do your homework without taking your books home?"

Officials from Edison Schools, which manages schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, acknowledged ongoing problems at Chester High: fighting in the hallways, ineffective disciplinary policies and dirty school corridors littered with trash.

"It was a little frightful to see so many students in the hallway just walking aimlessly, hanging out, talking back to the adults," says Edison Schools' Eva Wilson.

Board of Control member Michael Gillen said it was clear the experiment with Edison was failing. "There was so much animosity toward Edison, I don't think it was helpful to the students or to the school district."

Still, company officials claimed to make progress -- particularly at Chester High, where a dynamic young principal named Eboni Wilson stepped in to take charge.

"He wasn't always in his office. He was there. You saw him. You could talk to him if you needed him," says senior Aigner Cleveland.

But that apparent step forward came to a halt when Wilson, 27, was accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with a 16-year-old student. Though the girl took back the charges immediately -- saying she was pressured to make the charges by investigators -- Wilson was removed.

"Some people don't like change," Wilson says. "I'm not saying everybody was against me .... But some people don't like change, and they love to see things fail. They love it."

Starting Over -- Again

Control Board members agreed that the Wilson scandal was the final straw with Edison Schools -- and the state decided to terminate the contract a year early.

The district will retake control of the schools and hire new principals. Officials announced last week that Robert Crawford, a school administrator and teacher in Chester, will be the next principal of Chester High School.

In the meantime, some Chester High students say they are trying to put the best face on the difficulties they've faced.

"Some people get laid out, you know, a harder path to take," says Noel Witmore.

"You know, after I beat this and overcome this, you know, I'll be better off. And, you know, I'll be stronger than those who got things handed to them."

ABC News' Michel Martin originally reported this story June 23, 2005, on "Nightline."