BOSTON — When Dade County, Fla., was looking for long-term solutions to school overcrowding, the school superintendent turned to local businesses for help. But his request had a twist: He wanted to set up public-school classrooms inside corporate walls.
The concept found an eager audience in the Sunshine State when it was launched nine years ago. Since then, the idea has caught on as a small but increasingly popular solution to some of the problems facing schools and corporations alike.
Today, some 75 businesses around the country have set up satellite learning centers. Housed by a company, these SLCs are administered by the local public schools and offer a standard curriculum. The classes are taught by public school teachers. Many are an extension of a company's day-care program. Most offer kindergarten through second or third grade, but some may go as high as fifth. They also offer a connection between the world of children and their working parents.
Major companies such as 3M in Minneapolis and Hewlett-Packard in Santa Rosa, Calif., have adopted the concept. But it's not just heavyweights who are joining in. The Radisson Twin Towers hotel in Orlando, Fla., has built a little red schoolhouse for its SLC. And a group of 19 smaller companies established a joint venture in downtown Des Moines.
"That school is so successful, they have unborn children on the waiting list," says Mary Ann Ward, director of Schools at Work, an Orlando-based consulting firm that helps create the schools.
A main attraction for parents is that the schools help them stay in closer touch with their children. "This is the first time I've ever gotten to bring my child in my car with me and drop him off at school," says one parent starting his child at a new SLC. It's the first time, he says, "I can see him at lunch time, and be there for parent-teacher conferences, and pick him up at the end of the day."
The message to children is that their activities count. "When children leave satellite learning centers, they have such a strong feeling of support for them, for their education," Ms. Ward says. "When there's a special program, it's not just mom or dad who shows up, it's mom or dad's co-worker, mom or dad's boss, mom's or dad's CEO who comes."
The concept is not without critics, however. Theodore Sizer, chairman of the Coalition for Essential Schools at Brown University in Rhode Island and an advocate for school reform, says SLCs remind him of the schools provided in 19th-century company towns. He adds that they're not really public schools if enrollment is limited to employees' children.
"What about the kids of folks who don't have jobs? What about the kids of people who work in small businesses who work down the street?" Sizer asks. "It seems to me it's not a public school if by public you mean free access, like public transportation. You don't have to work for the [transit authority] in order to ride it."
While he acknowledges the value of having parents and children in such close proximity, "where schools are is really a secondary concern," he says.
But many companies have found that the schools, far from being a drain or a distraction, help the bottom line. At American Bankers Insurance Group in Dade County, which constructed a primary school for Grades K through 5, the program is a hit with parents and children. But it measures up in corporate terms as well. American Bankers says absenteeism fell 50 percent, the turnover rate is 5 percent to 9 percent lower for employees whose children participate, and tardiness is virtually zero.
SLCs can also be a strong draw for top talent. "It's definitely something that helps us to recruit and retain good employees," says Dan Condron, public affairs manager for Hewlett Packard. "We're in a major competitive battle trying to hire the same people that all of our competitors are trying to hire. This gives us a little competitive advantage trying to hire the very, very top college graduates in the country."
HP's school is on a 2.4 acre site at one of the three entrances to its 190-acre corporate campus. Child care is available before and after school hours, and most of HP's employees are on flex-time.
The result is record-level parental involvement in the school. "One kindergarten had over 20 parents officially volunteer one hour a week. That's the equivalent of another adult in classroom with the teacher," Mr. Condron says.
Steve Nielsen, the school's principal, says 40 percent of the parents volunteer on a regular basis, and 33 percent are dads. "The dad factor is really the phenomenal piece," he says.
Despite its success with the SLC, however, HP did decide to open enrollment to children in the local community in cases where classes weren't full.
The move came in response to criticism from members of the Santa Rosa community, who viewed the school as elitist and more like a private school. Presently, children of HP employees constitute 85 percent of the school's students.
Concerns about diversity were put to rest when it became clear that the school attracted attendance from a cross-section of the company. It is more racially diverse than other neighborhood public schools in the area.
Another compensating point for communities has been the fact that the companies shoulder the costs of SLCs. Dade County, for example, saves about $250,000 for each corporate classroom established, as well as annual operating expenses.