These grads come with warranties

Americans, who like guarantees on everything from hot tubs to Hondas, are now getting them on an unusual new commodity: the high school graduate. A handful of public schools across the country are beginning to send students out into the world with the equivalent of a product warranty.

They are telling businesses: If a student proves deficient in reading, writing, or performance of other basic tasks at a high school level - send him or her back. We will retrain the individual - at our expense.

``It is simply a constructive effort on the part of schools to assure the public that their graduates are well prepared,'' says Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ``I predict you are going to see a lot more of this.''

This week seven southern California high schools became the latest to join the student guarantee trend.

Officials in the Huntington Beach Union High School District in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, began sending out letters to some 2,500 businesses in the area telling them of their offer.

But they are not the only ones pursuing the idea. School officials in Howell, Mich., west of Detroit, recently decided to stand by their graduates.

They, like the schools in the Huntington Beach district, will begin the program with the class of 1987.

In tiny Buffalo, Minn., graduates from the junior high school have been sent off with a similar Good Housekeeping-type seal for more than a year.

So far, the school has taken back about a half dozen students for at least some retraining.

In Michigan, Howell High School principal Barbara Campbell says, ``We're saying we have enough faith in what we're doing to guarantee them.

``We feel the program is going to give our students an edge in the job market.''

Schools appear to be offering the ``protection'' plans both because they believe in the quality of their educational programs and because they want to brush up their public image.

In recent years, high schools have been at the epicenter of the quake of criticism over what's wrong with education in America.

``I think this kind of Good Housekeeping guarantee is the best way schools have of calling the bluff of the critics,'' contends Dr. Thomson.

The business community has been outspoken about why Johnny can't read. In a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, David T. Kearns, chairman and chief executive of Xerox Corporation, said that the poor quality of education is threatening the competitiveness of the American work force and the country's economic survival.

He said that teaching workers how to read, write, and count, as well as absorbing the lost productivity while they learn, now costs big business $25 billion a year.

``It is a cost I resent,'' Mr. Kearns wrote, ``because when business does remedial teaching we are doing the schools' product-recall work for them.''

It was partly the Kearns article that spurred Marie Otto, superintendent in the Huntington Beach district, to launch the guarantee plan there.

District officials say they're serious about the offer. If retraining is called for, it would take place in the high school's existing adult-education program, which holds classes mainly at night.

Any money needed for retraining would come out of state adult-education funding.

``We really would like to get a dialogue going with the business community,'' says Cathy McGough, a member of the district staff.

And what does business think of the idea?

While some colleges have guaranteed graduates in the past, the practice is believed to be new at the high school level. Many educators expect the idea to spread.

That prospect, not surprisingly, heartens the business community. Kearns, for one, believes it is a step toward improving education.

``It is no cure-all,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``But the school is stepping up to the problem. I think it's a terrific idea.''

Adds Joyce Riddell of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce: ``Business guarantees its products. Now the schools are going to guarantee theirs.''

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