The sometimes awkward, often fruitful relationships between schools and businesses are shifting: Businesses are getting more serious about wanting to help, but they're also getting more serious about having a hand in actually shaping the nature of the school.
Taking note of the changes, Baltimore's Fund for Educational Excellence is sponsoring a half-day "convention" of partnerships, which will run from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at Festival Hall. Admission is $4.
The idea is to bring together city schools and interested business people to see what's possible, says Jerry Baum, head of the non-profit group.
Until recently, business involvement usually meant "adopting" a school -- and what would happen is that a few things at that school, such as attendance or foreign language instruction or computer literacy, would get better. It often was not much more than public relations for the business. But the overall problems remained.
Today, more and more businesses are interested in fostering fundamental changes, not out of altruism but in search of a generation of better-educated employees.
Last week, for instance, Junior Achievement of Central Maryland approached the city school board with a proposal to sponsor a "micro-society school," in which the students would spend part of each day working at "jobs," earning "money" and conducting business with that money. The school would be modeled on one in Lowell, Mass., according to Doug Littrell, president of Junior Achievement, and would have a completely different program than the typical Baltimore school.
Superintendent Richard C. Hunter, who said he favored the proposal, pointed out that as the city moves toward decentralization, schools will be following various programs of their own choosing -- which should make them particularly receptive to partnerships with outside businesses or public agencies.
And according to those who have studied partnerships, businesses have something more important to offer schools than money -- influence. Besides bringing expertise to bear on a problem, a business can wield more clout than most educators can dream of.
But businesses will use that clout only if they believe it will help to bring about some real reform, says Robert Palaich, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, who has spent a year studying business partnerships. He says they want reform because of the changing nature of jobs, which require different kinds of skills.
"They are problem-solving skills, they are thinking skills, they are analytical skills, they are teamwork skills," he says.
Schools traditionally have sorted youngsters into the college track and the assembly-line track, he says; they have placed a premium on students' keeping quiet and orderly, and have not valued creativity. Particularly in the cities, where youngsters don't expect much out of the future anyway, he says, "some of the more creative minds are the ones that are walking out the door and dropping out."
Paul Ostergard, president of the GE Foundation, says no change can occur without trust, and most interested business people recognize that. "For business people to be creditable, you've got to have had your hands in the grease," he says. "You've got to be there."
But even with trust, working out a successful partnership isn't easy. Schools and businesses need to "select measurable goals that they'll jointly work toward," says Dave Jolly, a consultant with the California education department.
The projects that are successful, he says, "are run by administrators who view them as a tool to make the schools more effective. The administrator is really key -- the spark plug."
If a school administrator is not enthusiastic about a partnership, he says, "if it's just one more thing to futz around with, then it isn't going to work."