Going to school at the office. Company builds classrooms for children of employees

Not a tear was shed on the first day of this kindergarten - the only dry-eyed send-off in Roberta Keiser's 10 years of teaching. And the pint-sized students are not the only ones who find this school less troubling than most. This is a Dade County public school, but each student has a parent working at the company next door, American Bankers Insurance Group.

In the nation's first such arrangement, the company supplies the classrooms and the school district operates the school.

It means that instead of tedious trips to schools and day-care centers before and after work, Manola and Cecilia Gutierrez commute straight to American Bankers together. Manola Gutierrez is director of cash management. Cecilia is in kindergarten.

It means parents like Mrs. Gutierrez can meet the teacher several times a week instead of once a year at open house. Cecilia often visits her mother's office.

Knowing she is just minutes from her child, Mrs. Gutierrez says, brings peace of mind.

For the school district, it means relief from severe overcrowding in its regular classrooms. Administrators figure they save $219,000 for every new classroom they do not have to build themselves.

The company is looking for more stability and productivity for its money. By offering day care for preschoolers since 1984, it has cut employee turnover drastically along with tardiness and absenteeism, and improved morale, says Philip Sharkey, senior vice-president for human resources. Kindergarten promises to extend those benefits - for less trouble, because the public schools run it.

The public school at American Bankers headquarters is just one kindergarten class this year, run by lead teacher Keiser and an aide. Within two years, it will include kindergarten through second grade.

Dade County schools are negotiating with 11 other companies interested in offering public school at the office.

Mount Sinai Medical Center, for example, will construct two kindergarten classrooms to open next fall if its directors approve. The $200,000 cost to the hospital will be worth it, says Al Gentry, human resources director and vice-president, if it makes it easier to recruit and retain hard-to-find nurses.

Miami International Airport managers hope to open several classrooms next year for the children with parents at any of about 175 companies that work at the airport. Interest in the kindergarten at American Bankers has been coming from as far away as Japan.

``This is what's going to have to happen to really change education, I think,'' says Marlene Beck, associate director of the US Department of Education's private-sector initiatives office. ``I really think this is just the beginning.''

``It's a win-win-win situation for businesses, the school system, and the teachers,'' says Pat Tornillo, executive vice-president of United Teachers of Dade, the local union.

The idea originated with county schools superintendent Joseph Fernandez last summer, as the system wrestled with how to house Miami's growing student population. He found immediate enthusiasm at American Bankers, a company with experience in providing day care and a progressive reputation for its treatment of employees.

The company - working closely with school district architects - is constructing three permanent classrooms on its property. It will maintain them and pay utilities. The school system will equip, staff, and run them. The company and the school district split the $1.4 million insurance cost.

``The only cost to the taxpayers is the education program itself,'' superintendent Fernandez says. One cost avoided altogether is transportation, since children ride with their parents.

Workplace schools may be a boon to racial integration, too. At American Bankers, this year's kindergarten is Latin, black, and Anglo white by equal thirds - close to Dade County's overall population, which is somewhat more Latin and less Anglo.

``The workplace,'' says Joseph Tekerman, the Dade schools administrator for satellite learning centers, ``is better desegregated than the schools.''

By occupation, the parents at American Banker range from maintenance crew members to corporate vice-presidents.

Most of the students have known one another since starting preschool at the company.

``I've never seen a group of kindergartners walk in the first day of school and be so acclimated to each other and to school,'' Mrs. Keiser says.

By the time they reach second grade, they will spend at least a day every other week at a regular elementary school, so their transition to third grade in a traditional school setting is not too jarring. No plans have formed yet for extending the program beyond second grade. At that age, larger library and gymnasium facilities are required.

In the meantime, both Mrs. Keiser and the parents glow in the intimacy of the project. Every last parent has shown up for open-house nights. When a hurricane threatened last fall, Keiser had reached every parent within 15 minutes. Three or four days a week, a parent spends a lunch hour with the class helping with special projects.

Julia Leon, a systems analyst at the company, has a son in kindergarten and a four-year-old in the company day-care center. It took her a half-hour longer each way to commute her children to an outside day-care center.

Then, she had to leave work at 5 p.m. sharp. Now, she can work till 6 p.m. when necessary.

American Bankers, too, appears to be getting what they want from the school. Employee turnover among parents with children in day care or the school is a quarter of the overall rate.

``I plan to stay here at least as long as my kids are in the center,'' says Trish Otero, a documents control supervisor. ``I wouldn't even consider leaving - even for more money.''

The students see more of their parents' work world as well. ``Just the mere fact that they come with you,'' says Mrs. Gutierrez. ``They get a feeling more that they belong, that they're a part of your life.''

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