Company partnership inspires fourth-graders to start water-bottle business Program matches firms with schools HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

April 29, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

It may be nearing exam time at Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia, but the buzzword in the halls these days is, well, water bottles.

Fourth-graders at the school have spent a year setting up a company to design, market and sell a handy water bottle that fellow students and their friends will find cool enough to spring for. Students involved in the project take delivery today on the long-awaited final product.

"This is going to be a very big day. These kids have thrown a lot into researching the product, the competition and their target market," says Alan Davis, vice president of Princeton Sports, which manages two specialty sporting goods stores.

Mr. Davis has visited fourth-grade classes twice a month this school year to teach the students the dynamics of what it takes to set up a business and make it tick.

He's taking part in a booming program that matches businesses and public schools.

The goals: to tap role models and learning resources outside the confines of school walls.

Howard County principals, teachers and school administrators involved with the program are, not surprisingly, bullish on its advantages. But participating business owners and employees say they are benefiting from the partnerships as well.

"I initially signed up thinking, 'Well, this will be a nice community thing we can get involved in and handle without too much burden,' " recalls Joe Link, co-founder and president of Hallmark Homes, based in Columbia.

The company is a partner to West Friendship Elementary School, where Mr. Link has assisted with several programs to encourage strong reading and math skills.

"The more I got involved with it, the more wrapped up in it I got," he says. "I'm personally getting a lot of satisfaction from getting to know the kids and their parents and seeing that together we can influence kids to expand how often and what they read. To me, strong reading skills are really important for success in business -- and just life."

Mr. Link has hammed it up with a mascot called Toughie the Tiger on the school stage in front of a giggling assembly of students to get the ball rolling on a reading incentive program. He also had the company engineer bring construction hardware into classrooms to show real-life applications of math skills.

Now in its sixth year, the program -- called Educational Partnerships -- has grown from 16 partnerships in the 1987-88 school year to 140 this school year.

All but three of the county's 54 public schools are matched with business partners, says Paula Blake, the assistant to the school superintendent for school-business relations and partnerships.

Partnerships cover a wide range of possibilities, from a study skills seminar for students and parents given by the owner of a small publishing company, to finance and science lessons taught by employees of some of the county's largest employers.

While some businesses contribute economically to their partner schools, by donating food, teaching aides or offering rebates to the school on products purchased by students, Ms. Blake says a must for all participating businesses is a "human resource contribution."

"A partnership is not a company sponsoring a $300 scholarship or computers. We want people interacting with the students and the school. Personal contact is what affects career choices and self-esteem," Ms. Blake says.

For example, employees of Maryland National Bank, which has matched every one of its 15 Howard branches with a school, visit classrooms to show students the elements of personal finance, a skill some wouldn't otherwise confront until their college years.

W.R. Grace & Co., a chemical research company with a plant near Columbia, has a partnership with Atholton High School. About 15 students interested in the sciences are matched with company scientists. The scientists serve as mentors and teachers, either allowing students to assist them on their W.R. Grace projects or guiding students in their own research.

"The partnership gives us a chance to place students in a learning environment that is significantly different from the classroom," says Ed Rohde, the science research teacher at Atholton High. "Students get an idea of what real science is and what working with real scientists is like. That is something many colleges can't offer until the graduate level."

Students in the program, Mr. Rhode says, generally find out quickly whether they want to pursue science as a career.

"They answer a big question at an early age. That's an advantage a lot of people would like to have and which you can't really offer in a classroom," he says.

Ms. Blake, the school administrator for the school-business partnerships, says that while the program does assist students with understanding the dynamics of career choices, the program's key benefit is bringing a diversity of role models and teaching styles into county classrooms.

The program also is seen as providing a valuable source of mentors for students who may not have access to adult mentors outside the home.

"There's a big segment of kids who need adult support and role models that they aren't finding at home," says Ms. Blake.

"We've found that the business owners and employees who come into the classroom can make a difference for kids falling through the cracks," she says. "To me, the human element of the partnerships is by far the most important element."

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