More than most major public school systems, the one in Jefferson County, Ky. - which contains Louisville and 96 other towns - has taken a beating in the last decade. But the school district - the nation's 17th largest - is climbing back, and the Louisville business community is a major part of the reason. Business has come to see the local schools as a key factor in the future of the region's economy.
Public schools succeed or fail according to the confidence the public holds in them. In 1975, the district sustained two court-ordered blows that undermined public confidence for years. First, the city school district was merged with the larger suburban district. Then the new district began busing for racial desegregation.
The past decade has not been a good one for the local economy either.
Louisville would need a better-educated work force to prosper in a national economy based on computers and high technology, economist David Birch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, told local leaders in 1982.
When I became superintendent of the Jefferson County public schools in 1981, it was apparent to me that the momentum to carry public confidence back into the schools had to begin in the business community. Only corporations and private foundations had the resources to launch programs that can rally larger public support. Businesses also can generate community interest, which in turn helps motivate staff members to do a better job because someone cares about their efforts.
Shortly afterward, Humana Inc., a Louisville-based health services corporation, spent $150,000 at Roosevelt-Perry Elementary School to determine how computers could best be used in the classroom. The computer project, used wisely with a strong academic program, high expectations, effective leadership, and hard work by the staff, has helped to raise the achievement test scores from the low 30th percentile in reading and 40th percentile in mathematics in the spring of 1982 to the 60th percentile in reading and the 70th percentile in mathematics in 1983-1984.
This year, businesses and foundations are spending more than $2 million on the public schools. Local businesses, such as Humana, General Electric, the Bunton Company, and local banks, have spent almost $1 million to improve computer education. The local Gheens Foundation has pledged over $2.5 million in the next five years for special programs to keep quality teachers.
The computer project at Roosevelt-Perry has launched a three-year campaign to put a computer laboratory in every district elementary school. Sixty percent of the $4.2 million cost will come from business, 20 percent from parents, and 20 percent from the school district budget.
A group of young advertising executives, called AD II, designed the promotional campaign for the project. Titled ''The New Kid in School,'' the campaign provides the district with $150,000 in media support for about $48,000. This investment too will be funded by business.
Parents will try to raise their share of the project's cost through giant Parent-Teacher Association yard sales.
None of these contributions are going to make or break a school district with a $226 million annual budget. But business can give the schools an important and substantial extra edge that many districts cannot afford any other way. In this district, business has taken the lead in renewing public confidence in the schools. The benefits, we all hope, are mutual.