Schools become companies' business Education seeks from private sector what it can't get from public

April 13, 1997|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Constance Foertsch had a problem. The kindergarten teacher at Park Heights Elementary School wanted her students to be read to at night, but she knew they had few books at home.

So she began a personal fund-raising campaign to boost her school's collection. Her largest contributor: a Baltimore County manufacturer of medical diagnostic tools that donated $300 and several cartons of barely used volumes.

"I was amazed at the response," said Foertsch, who wrote to Becton Dickinson Microbiology Systems at the suggestion of a friend who worked for the Sparks company.

Add Becton Dickinson to the long list of companies that are aiding city schools.

The Greater Baltimore Committee estimates that at least 300 companies are providing management and monetary support to city schools, ranging from some of the area's best-known businesses to mom-and-pop neighborhood stores. And the involvement of businesses inside and outside the city is growing in scope and number as savvy school leaders seek from the private sector what they cannot get from public sources.

"Networking has become one of the roles of principalship," said Addie Johnson, principal of West Baltimore's Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, which has the backing of more than a dozen businesses, including one in Columbia and another in Washington.

No firm estimates exist on the total dollar value of corporate contributions to city schools, but it almost certainly tops $1 million.

Academies at two high schools alone -- finance at Lake Clifton-Eastern and travel and tourism at Southwestern -- receive $110,000 in cash from local companies, and more than three times that in indirect aid. A 3-year-old program to train new principals in management skills gets another $50,000. And almost all of the city's 180 schools get some kind of assistance, from college scholarships for graduating students to free pizzas to reward students for good attendance.

Bonnie S. Copeland, executive vice president of the GBC, said businesses want to help schools, to be "good corporate citizens" and to better their own prospects.

"They have a vested interest in making sure education improves in the city. That's their future work force," said Copeland, whose organization and the city schools will honor participants in its partnership program at a reception April 29 at the World Trade Center.

More support

The school aid and reform bill that was enacted last week likely will encourage even more support because improved management will appeal to businesses, she said.

"Businesses want to make sure their contributions are really working. The more accountability, the better for businesses," Copeland said.

That would be welcome news for school principals, who see an important psychological as well as practical value in the support businesses provide.

Willie L. Grier Jr., principal of Commodore John Rodgers Elementary, said his East Baltimore school doesn't "have big businesses in the neighborhood to draw on." So it relies on

donations of money and gifts from the likes of Ken-Tenn Tavern, Pizza & Wings to Go, Peterson Lumber Com. and Payless Shoe Source for everything from food for assemblies to stipends for parent truant officers who knock on the doors of absent students.

"It helps the children feel good about their community," he said of the support.

Brenda Chunn, principal of Park Heights Elementary, agrees.

The total value of business contributions to her school is a few thousand dollars, she said. That is a small fraction of the $850,000 needed to operate the school of about 250 students, 97 percent of whom live in poverty. The donated money is used to pay for transportation on field trips and for parties to celebrate achievements in academics and attendance.

"These are the little perks that allow us to enrich our school life and to establish traditions that reinforce that it pays to meet standards," Chunn said.

"We want to say to the children, 'The world is a good place,' " she added. "That's a difficult message when terror and fear are so close at hand. These contributions show there are businesses within the community that care."

Last month, three employees of Becton Dickinson showed that concern by coming to Park Heights to read to the students some TC of the books collected in an employee drive and bought with the company's contribution.

One of the three, David Antonio, a project engineer with the company, said he realized firsthand the value of reading to young children because he has two preschoolers.

"If there are kids out there who don't have that opportunity, I feel I can help," said Antonio, who lives in Perry Hall.

Foertsch, who is in her sixth year as a teacher, contacted the company and other businesses in part because she found that the local library branch discouraged younger students from checking out materials, fearing they might never be returned.

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