A FEW blocks from Miami's renovated Art Deco hotel district, where all those "Miami Vice" scenes were shot, is a bold experiment - the first public school in the United States to be operated in partnership with a private, for-profit company.
The $6.5 million peach-and-aqua South Pointe elementary school, which opened in September, is being operated under an alliance between Dade County, the United Teachers of Dade, and Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), a for-profit Minneapolis-based firm that manages public schools.
While it has become common for businesses to connect with classrooms, this is the first time a business has been contracted to supply the entire educational program. EAI not only provides a complete curriculum, but also teacher training, associate teacher salaries, and technical support. The company has already designed two private schools in Minnesota and Arizona.
The move comes at a time of increasing interest in radical solutions to the dire problems schools are facing. In Milwaukee, minority children are given vouchers to attend private schools. Boston University is running the Chelsea, Mass., school district. Chicago's decentralized school district is powered by parent-controlled committees.
Chris Whittle, who started Channel One news programs for schools, plans to open at least 200 for-profit private schools across the country under his Edison Project.
Michael Cohen, co-director of the National Alliance for Restructuring Education in Washington, sees South Pointe as part of a larger trend of districts sending out requests for proposals from teams of educators to create new schools from the bottom up. He says that's happening in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Diego.
Miami, faced with an exploding student population, passed a bond issue in 1988 to create 49 new schools. Under a program called the Saturn Project, the district requested proposals for designing the new schools. South Pointe and eight others are open; four more are under way.
EAI aims to create a student-focused school (the phone number is 531-KIDS) with individual lesson plans, which allow students a high degree of control over the pace of their own learning. The company, the union, and the school district joined to hire Dade County teachers, who are responsible for students' progress.
The program is called "Tesseract," from Madeleine L'Engle's book "A Wrinkle in Time," in which children venture through a fifth-dimension corridor called tesseract for traveling to new worlds.
When word got out about South Pointe's opening, some Anglo parents moved into the poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood to enroll their children. Enrollment is 720; the school was designed for 550.
SOME 43 students even transferred back from private schools. Fourth-grader Justin Bakst had problems adjusting at his former school; now he runs South Pointe's computer lab. Rebecca Izquierdo, a poised fifth-grader, transferred from her all-white private school because, "I wanted more diversity."
She's learning math at her own pace. "If the teacher thinks you can do better, she'll help you," says Rebecca. At her former school, she says, students who went ahead of the teacher's schedule had to serve detention.
Three hundred fifty teachers applied for 35 positions, and enthusiasm for the school runs high among the teachers who were hired.
"We have the freedom to do what's right for the kids," says Beth Rosenthal, a third-grade teacher. They also enjoy their own offices, telephones, and computers.
The school, as if to show its for-profit roots and desire for free advertising, is a media darling: one of the few where reporters get press kits. As many as 100 visitors come each week; the school tries to limit them to Tuesdays. Students, however, look happy, involved in their work, and are willing to talk to visitors about what they're working on and why.
Fourth-graders are running a series of tests on cornstarch including heating it over a flame to test its properties.
Groups of fifth-graders are doing "fly-swatter" math. One student reads equations, two others slap a correct answer printed on a vinyl cloth lying on the floor.
Much of the curriculum relies heavily on computers, not coincidentally, because Control Data Inc., the company that invented the curriculum and sold it to EAI, a spinoff company, is involved in computer education.
Teachers use computers to track grades and student information. They can teach students math problems, then create a bar graph for answers and display it on a TV monitor.
South Pointe is divided into four minischools. Students in all grades gather each morning in their minischools for a homeroom meeting that's aimed to create bonds between older and younger students and establish a sense of community. Then they divide up into their grades.
Each classroom of 30 pupils has a teacher and an associate teacher. Arranging that required labor concessions, but so far the school has gotten support from the union. "There are many pluses in it," says Albert Shanker, head of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of United Teachers of Dade. "It may be that having school boards contract with management outfits might improve management."
The school is not cheap. So far EAI has paid $400,000 for teacher training, curriculum, materials, and technology and plans to raise $2.5 million over five years. It also pays the salaries of the associate teachers, who are University of Miami graduate students. Dade County pays the standard $4,000 to $5,000 it does for kids in all schools.
KATHRYN THOMAS, vice president of EAI, says the company doesn't expect to make a profit from South Pointe, but hopes this contract will lead to other contracts that will involve managing the whole school, not just the educational component.
How replicable South Pointe can be isn't clear. Chester Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and soon-to-be core team member of Whittle's Edison Project, says a combination of several factors enabled the school to start: the growth in the district that made change easier, the progressive teachers' union, and Dade County's predisposition toward school-based management.
"I expect there will be more examples," of this type of school, says Mr. Finn. "But I don't expect it to sweep the whole country in a hurry."
Whether others buy the idea also depends on South Pointe's success. EAI is using the first year to collect data. After that they'll put together a formalized plan of assessment. So far, the school reports a 7-to-9 percent increase in math test scores.
EAI has reported increased test scores in the two private schools it runs in Eagon, Minn., and Paradise Valley, Ariz. But those schools are in affluent counties. At South Pointe, 80 percent of the students qualify for free lunch.
"The worst problem is transience," says principal Patricia Parham. "In this area, parents move when the rent comes due. It's hard to make a difference educationally when you only have them six months."