Offering schoolchildren something too relevant to reject

Will the trend toward more stringent requirements for public school students really help them get a better education? Frank Macchiarola, president of New York City Partnership Inc., which sponsors school-business coalitions, has his doubts. ``This business of excellence, as important as it is, ignores issues of equity and access,'' he says.

Equity -- what this former chancellor of the New York public schools terms ``accountability'' to all children -- should be the first priority of public education, he maintains. Any push for quality instruction and learning in the high schools, in his opinion, must be mindful of the droves of school-age children who are not in school.

``Making it more difficult to get a diploma is just going to increase the dropout rate,'' he says, pinpointing one of the most sobering problems in public education. ``We have to remember how many children are going to slip away from us if the focus is on giving them more of what they've already rejected.''

To help alleviate the growing dropout problem (45 percent among New York City high schoolers), Mr. Macchiarola feels that traditional classroom offerings need to be bolstered by creative programs that are more clearly relevant to children's needs.

And he feels that Partnership initiatives to link private companies with public schools are tailored to fill that need. They offer students something different, and, Macchiarola hopes, something too relevant to reject.

``We want to show [children] that the things they learn in school are things of value,'' he explains. ``And kids do value jobs.''

Since its formation in 1979 by David Rockefeller, the Partnership has been dedicated to revitalizing New York City's flagging economy. Its commitment to public education gained an added boost in 1983 when Mr. Rockefeller nabbed Macchiarola from the city school system to become the Partnership's first president and chief executive officer.

At the heart of the Partnership's involvement with the public schools is the ``Join-A-School'' (JAS) program, which fosters the connection of a single company with a single public high school. Twelve companies -- American Can, IBM, Citibank, to name a few -- have already ``joined'' New York City schools.

The significance of the program's name doesn't escape Macchiarola's semantic sensibilities: ``We don't call it Adopt-A-School because, when you adopt something, you assume someone else's responsibility. When you join something, you participate.''

Macchiarola's careful explanation suggests not only the equality that should be the basis of a business-school partnership, but also the type of responsibility that companies should feel in the Join-A-School program -- ``to provide opportunities that kids wouldn't get but for the intervention of these companies'' -- namely, programs that open them up to the working world.

One apparent success story for the Join-A-School program is the American Can Company's linkup with Martin Luther King High School, a 99 percent black-and-Hispanic school in Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Although American Can's annual $25,000 grant may appear to be small, its commitment is intense and goes far beyond dollar resources -- a reflection, in part, of chairman William Woodside's philosophy that ``you can't just write a check, you have to be involved.''

According to Ray Reisler, American Can's manager of corporate policy planning and public responsibility, the company's involvement revolves around the needs and desires of the school.

``We encourage the school to get involved in the planning process,'' he says. ``When we see their thoughts and objectives, our role is to be responsive to their needs.'' He adds, in response to fears of a corporate power play, ``In no way are we trying to alter their curriculum.''

Personal involvement ranges from supervising after-school programs, giving attendance and achievement awards, to conducting ``world of work'' seminars and internships (once-a-week work experience at American Can headquarters for 12 youngsters each semester).

Most educators see a glaring need for more school-business partnerships such as this one.

``The schools are grossly underresourced,'' says Dalton Miller-Jones, professor of education at the City University of New York. ``There is a definite need for external help, not just in resources, but in boosting morale.''

What little resistance the Join-A-School program has met has come from educators worried that professional businessmen, who happen to be amateur teachers, may take over the business of education.

Macchiarola admits that company participation in public education programs isn't pure altruism. But it's not mere profit-mongering, either, he says, even though the organization's glossy brochure lists nine self-interest incentives -- including lower training costs, higher productivity, lower insurance rates, tax credits, and a few others. (``That's a much-easier lesson than telling them they are going to get to heaven,'' quipped the chief executive.)

The reason corporations get involved, Macchiarola notes, lies somewhere between the two extremes: ``It's a sense of a civic responsibility,'' Macchiarola says, ``a realization that the health of the school system is the key to the health of our city.''

Many companies are concerned that two factors -- New York's sky-high dropout rate and the decline in numbers of high school age children in the wake of the baby boom -- portend a dangerous depletion of the pool of skilled, young employees. They view their participation in the Partnership's programs as a productive way to show their concern.

American Can's commitment, like the Partnership's involvement in public education as a whole, apparently hasn't dented the dropout problem, but it has made quite an impression within the school, lifting both morale and attendance. The key, Macchiarola says, is ``to make the school as attractive an alternative [to youngsters] as possible. That's a system in which you have an accountability to those youngsters.''

Critics question the extent of this accountability. One called the Partnership's programs ``part-time and token -- a small contribution that is highly inadequate against the crisis problem that exists in the schools.''

Professor Miller-Jones modifies that criticism, but, along with a chorus of others, suggests that ``the problems are too complex and large to be solved by business-school coalitions alone. The Partnership's programs are only suggestive,'' he says. ``The public schools will have to decide whether to adopt them.''

Even Macchiarola feels that the Partnership cannot be relied on as the sole salvation of the public schools. ``If you rely simply on business and partnership for dollar resources, hard economic times will dry up the dollar. But,'' he adds, ``if you ask [businesses] to participate organically, then you won't get that. You'll get a common resolve in times of crisis.''

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