RESCO, school generate sparks Partnerships: Businesses can bring a new perspective as education operations become decentralized, placing more responsibility on principals and their staffs.

The Education Beat

September 15, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MANY Baltimore schools decorate their lobbies with portraits of Kurt Schmoke or touristy photographs of the Inner Harbor. But Westport Elementary-Middle School in South Baltimore displays a framed photo of the nearby Refuse Energy Systems Co. plant, which performs the indelicate task of turning Baltimore's trash into steam and electricity.

There's a good reason for festooning Westport with a shot of the RESCO plant. The plant and the school for nearly a decade have enjoyed a partnership. Over the years, RESCO and its 65 employees have invested thousands of hours and thousands of dollars in the school.

"They're always there when we need them," said Sharon Van Dyke, the Westport principal. "Sometimes it's ESP. I'll just be thinking of something we need, some little thing, and they're here before I say anything."

The trees out front? From RESCO. The private telephone line allowing Westport students an uncluttered connection to the Internet? From RESCO. Snow plowing on the day after last winter's blizzard? Mentoring of students? RESCO. Servicing the school's ancient mimeograph machine? Again, RESCO.

Last Christmas, a truck arrived with lights blinking, Santa and a shepherd bearing stockings stuffed with presents for all 760 students. Van Dyke got a little something, too: a $21,000 check for a computer lab. Not only did RESCO buy the computers; its employees built the lab.

Yet Steven G. Tomczewski, the RESCO general manager, doesn't want to be pictured as Westport's Santa. "This is a partnership," he said, "and a true partnership gives something to both sides. We go up there and play basketball. When we had our 10th anniversary here, we did all the displays on their computers. Ironically, their computers are more advanced than ours." RESCO even asks Westport's staff to critique plant managers' oral reports before they are given at the parent company's head office.

Indeed, Tomczewski, a modest man who eschews publicity, dismissed the dollar value of RESCO's efforts.

"It's really personal commitment that counts. What we do isn't elaborate in terms of dollars. We don't have the budget to just hand out money at the school. Most of what we do is voluntary. The computer lab, for example. None of our people were paid to do any of the work. It would have cost the school system $100,000."

The Westport-RESCO partnership is one of the most successful of more than 400 in the city. In a form of school "privatization" that has received little attention, at least 600 Maryland schools have partnerships with businesses, professional groups, colleges, universities, fraternal groups and other agencies and organizations. Many of the outside partners perform specific tasks. In other relationships, the outside partner essentially adopts the school.

The Greater Baltimore Committee pioneered the concept nationally a quarter-century ago and called it "Adopt-a-School." But that title had too many one-way connotations, said Marguerite S. Walker, a retired city principal who directs the GBC program today.

"We try to develop a trusting two-way relationship," she said. "We don't want any school to think we're there to take over."

Partnerships are particularly urgent as schools decentralize, said Judy Wereley, longtime coordinator of city school partnerships. Principals across the state and nation are doing more decision-making, more budgeting, and they often lack business acumen. "When a business person sits on a school improvement team, he or she soon discovers that running a school is extremely complex. The principals who welcome partners with management expertise are seldom disappointed."

Tomczewski said he learned early on that "the management skills needed to run a school are as great as mine are to operate a plant."

The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education coordinates 33 partnerships in seven Maryland districts. June E. Streckfus, the business group's executive director, said the outside partners try to approach schools as "critical friends."

The Business Roundtable approach is to have the business partner sit on a school's improvement team and participate in planning its educational program. "Sometimes the two partners don't speak the same language," Streckfus said. "The meetings can turn into faculty meetings or forums for complaints. The business partners have a unique point of view. They might sit quietly for some time and then say, 'Why are we doing it this way?' "

Despite the booming business in partnerships, the demand for partners far exceeds the supply. Four of the failing city elementary schools targeted for reform by the State Department of Education, for example, lack partners. Streckfus said there is a need for partners in the suburbs and rural areas of the state, too.

And though partnering can be satisfying, it has its perilous moments. Streckfus told of a power company executive working with an inner-city class who opened the floor to questions.

"Why did you cut off my mother's lights?" asked one of the student.

Cure-all

Walter Sondheim, the octogenarian Baltimore civic leader and member of the State Board of Education, has a solution for what ails public education in America. Referring to the glowing reviews Catholic schools have been getting of late, Sondheim said, "What we need are public nuns."

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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