Businesses play key role in education Tutoring, job training replacing money as support for schools

Partnerships evolve

Students learn what to expect

companies gain prepared workers


November 15, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

On Fridays, three lawyers from Venable, Baetjer and Howard arrive at East Baltimore's Collington Square Elementary School to tutor first- and second-graders in math and reading.

Black & Decker Corp. representatives meet regularly with administrators of three area high schools to help form a science and technology curriculum that will prepare students for work in the real world.

Three Sollers Point/ Southeastern Technical High School students spend nine hours a week at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant learning the ins and outs of things like maintenance planning and scheduling.

More and more, businesses are taking an active role in the public education of today's students -- tomorrow's work force.

"I think you're seeing it all over," said Beth Buehlmann, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Workforce Preparation. "There's a great deal of thought that the business world needs to become more critically involved in the education system other than financial support. I'm not saying the sole purpose of an education is to put somebody to work, but the world outside of school has in it employers.

"And how many times have you heard a student say, 'What does this have to do with what I'm going to do when I get out of here?' "

Ten years ago most business support of education came in the form of money, said Sharon Norman, director of business, community and parent relations for Baltimore County Public Schools. "The most common support today is not financial but human resources."

She likes the change.

"It demands accountability on the part of the school; it's not a question of giving a $100 check and never knowing if it made a difference," she said. "The partnership means both are involved -- the educator and the business. It's getting kids tuned in to the expectations of the business community, of a good work ethic, strong attendance, giving their best every day. Teachers say that every day, but how affirming it is when a businessman or woman comes in and says, 'That's what we're looking for.' "

While businesses often tout their commitment to civic involvement, many acknowledge that altruism is not the only motivator. Bethlehem Steel, for example, has had trouble finding qualified workers.

"Because of technological advances, it has raised the standards of entering the plant," said John Contic, a senior engineer in maintenance services who oversees the intern program. "We have to help the educational system to help students entering the work force because we have a vested interest in it. Everybody's going through this now."

Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, chairman and chief executive of Legg Mason Inc., chairs the board of directors of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. The 6-year-old group is made up of leaders from more than 100 businesses with the aim of supporting education reform.

"Thirty years ago you could be difficult in school, drop out in 10th grade and go work in a steel or auto plant and it worked out fairly well," Mason said. "If you couldn't read or add or subtract, it didn't matter. Today those jobs don't exist."

Even Legg Mason has felt the effects of unprepared applicants.

"The biggest problem is in entry level," he said. "Literally, when they come for an interview, their writing skills, reading skills and math skills are at levels we just find shocking. We train people for jobs, but they've got to have all the fundamental skills or we can't hire them. We can't go back and teach seventh grade or something."

A review of two dozen major employers in the Baltimore area found that 22 had gone beyond the traditional ties to organizations that benefit students like Junior Achievement to form direct relationships with public schools. The involvement ranges from one-on-one tutoring to helping principals become better managers to informational lectures and hands-on projects.

Some companies choose to work directly with the students. Volunteers from Piper & Marbury, Venable, the St. Paul Cos., Giant Food Inc., NationsBank Corp. and W. R. Grace's Grace Davison chemical division, for example, tutor students on a regular basis.

For four months during the last school year, David S. Musgrave and seven other Piper lawyers spent their Saturday mornings with third- and fifth-graders at Cherry Hill Elementary School to .. help the students prepare for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. They are hoping that when the results are released, at least 15 percent of the children will have scored 70 percent or more.

"It's really a shame," Musgrave said of the none-too-lofty goal. "It shows how far the school has to go."

Last year, 12 Venable lawyers adopted a first-grade class at Collington Square Elementary School. Three members of the group met with the students every Friday to help with math and reading skills. Firm partner Terri Turner, who initiated the program, said this year it has expanded to two second-grade classes, and she's hoping to nab eight more lawyers to help.

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