How Chicago draws private support to public schools

On an average day 20 percent of the students at Chicago's largely Hispanic Juarez High School simply fail to show up for class.

But a concerted effort since last fall to cut absenteeism - through daily phone calls in Spanish to parents and the launching of a bilingual school newsletter - has led to a 3-to-5 percent improvement in regular monthly attendance.

Although Juarez administrators approved the plan, it was actually education specialists at Illinois Bell Telephone and a squad of company volunteers who drafted the specifics and manned the phones.

Bell is one of 73 Chicago companies, social service organizations, and academic institutions that have teamed up with individual schools over the last several months under Chicago School Superintendent Ruth Love's Adopt-a-School program.

For Chicago schools, which are expected to lose about 25 percent of their federal funds next year, having a circle of friends in the community willing to roll up their sleeves and help is proving to be a valuable asset.

Actually this kind of public-private partnership, so encouraged by Washington these days, has a long tradition in many cities. But it is often one of sporadic , one-day stands focusing in on careers or businessmen as guest speakers. Adopt-a-School, an idea now practiced in several cities around the country, shoots for improvement in basic reading, writing, and math, and a commitment of at least an hour a week in class for one year.

In supporting the program, Superintendent Love argues that schools have become too exclusively the domain of educators and need more public involvement. She first tried the program while superintendent in Oakland, Calif., and claims she has seen the pride and student achievement gains that can come when a company ''calls a school its own.''

Some critics bristle at the thought of any nonschool personnel in the classroom and worry about the propaganda opportunities that such could open. But many veteran education-watchers insist such concern is overblown.

''Building coalitions is going to be the key to survival of public education in the '80s - business has an interest in good schools and is a natural partner, '' says Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National Association of School Boards. ''The gloom and doomsayers are worried in some vague way about proselytizing, but that possibility can be easily controlled by monitoring the instructional program which schools are supposed to do anyway. . . . I'm strongly supportive of this kind of program.''

In practice, Adopt-a-School gives companies a good deal of latitude in how they meet the program's goal.

''We're looking for something with an impact on the student's learning ability, and we don't really care how the sponsor goes about it,'' explains program director Al Sterling, a former social studies teacher. ''We look for talent, resources, and a plan of action - we don't want any fluff.''

In some programs, the career connection is still strong. Chicago's Blitz Corporation, for instance, which rebuilds and reconditions buses, has been working with students in an inner-city high school metal shop class. Marshall High School vocational director Ralph Thompson defends the adoption on motivation grounds. By working with the same machinery the industry uses, he says, students are given something practical ''to shoot for.''

Hiring students, as some of the adopters do, can also increase student self-respect and incentive to learn. First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Chicago, for instance, has been trying to set up an English language lab in Sullivan High School, whose students who speak 43 different languages. It already has given three students who speak Russian, French, and Spanish an enormous boost by hiring them to work as tellers and interpreters.

''We'd been trying to tell them that being able to speak another language is an asset, and (the hirings) help to prove it,'' says Sullivan's principal, Dr. Robert Brazil.

Several of the adoption programs have a strong and direct academic emphasis. Three textbook publishers, for instance, have introduced their curriculum materials in an effort to improve students' basic skills. And the National College of Education has introduced a math program in two recently desegregrated elementary schools.

Some of the adoptions involve straight tutoring and have probably been as eye-opening for tutors as for the students helped.

''It was an experience full of surprises for me,'' recalls Christina Ruys, an active member of Support Chicago, a local businesswomen's group that adopted Clemente High School and trained volunteer tutors in phonics. She tutored a Hispanic ex-gang member who read at second-grade level and would guess at the pronunciation of such words as ''should'' and ''would'' rather than admit he didn't know them.

''Many of the students have family problems and have to work hard at home and in after-school jobs,'' she adds.''We found the one thing they do like and need is the special attention they get. It's mainly a supportive relationship.''

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