WHEN Dawn Gadar wants to consult with her son Sean's kindergarten teacher, getting time off from work is not a problem. She can easily fit a conference into her work schedule, because he attends a public kindergarten class offered by her employer, Miami-Dade Community College. And power lunches have fallen by the wayside for Manny Gutierrez, director of cash management at American Bankers Insurance Group in Miami. She often prefers to volunteer during lunch hour to work in her daughter's first-grade classroom, right on the grounds of American Bankers' office park.
The Dade County public school system is the first in the country to offer public schools in the workplace, built by the employer and outfitted by the school system. With three satellite learning centers operating during 1988-89, all indications are that this unique partnership between the private and public sectors is a resounding success.
``I see it only as a win-win situation,'' says Joseph T. Tekerman, executive assistant to the superintendent of schools in Dade County. ``You have more working mothers and one-parent homes than ever before. This is the wave of the future.''
The first satellite learning center was opened in August 1987 at the American Bankers Insurance Group. The company's initial kindergarten classroom expanded to include first grade this year. And next year, second grade will be added, with all the classes housed in a new $350,000 building.
American Bankers was one of the first corporations in the United States to offer day care in the workplace, so the satellite learning center ``was a natural evolution for us,'' says Philip J. Sharkey, senior vice-president of human resources. ``We like to think of ourselves as a family-oriented company.''
The company's successful use of the concept has encouraged other Miami-area employers. Last fall, public kindergarten classes opened at Miami International Airport and Miami-Dade Community College North. These employers, too, plan to follow with first- and second-grade classrooms.
The idea of satellite learning centers was broached to the business community by Dade school superintendent Joseph A. Fernandez at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in June 1987.
With the fourth-largest public school system in the nation, Dade County faces extreme crowding problems at many of its schools. During the 1988-89 school year, the county added 14,000 new students to its rolls, for a total of 268,000, according to Mr. Tekerman.
Ninety percent of Dade's students, says Tekerman, come from two-income or single-parent homes - households struggling to balance the demands of family and work. ``The `Leave It to Beaver' family is dead,'' he says.
School officials applaud the satellite learning centers for giving employed parents more time with their children and giving companies a valuable perquisite for employees.
In turn, Dade County saves $216,000 for every classroom that the school system does not have to build, says Tekerman. The county also saves on utilities, maintenance, and security, all of which are the responsibility of the company sponsoring the school. Eliminating busing for students who ride to work with parents saves another $1,400 annually per child, Tekerman says, noting that 14 to 16 percent of students attending conventional elementary schools must be bused.
The school system provides staff, furnishings, and supplies for each satellite learning center, as well as sharing the costs of liability insurance with the sponsor company.
Care before and after the regular school hours of about 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. is provided by YMCA personnel, either in the classroom or at adjacent day-care centers.
The benefit for the companies is that ``happier workers are better workers,'' Tekerman says. And Mr. Sharkey agrees that he has seen better morale and stability among employees since opening the satellite learning center. ``The ripple effect has been tremendous. It has affected not just the people who have children there, but all employees,'' Sharkey says.
There are benefits to the company that are easier to quantify, too. During 1988, American Bankers found that absenteeism among parents of children using the center was about 25 percent lower than among other employees. And turnover among these parents was 5.5 to 6 percent, compared with a company-wide rate of 15.9 percent, Sharkey says.
Debbie Falterman, operations technician at American Bankers, says she would be reluctant to leave the company, even for higher pay, as long as her daughter, Christy, is in the satellite learning center. ``If I had to leave and take my daughter out, I wouldn't do it,'' she says. Ms. Gutierrez agrees: ``It would have to be a fantastic offer.''
When employees do leave, there are plenty of replacements in the wings. The school ``is an excellent recruitment tool,'' says Sharkey. ``We do attract a higher caliber of candidate for any given job.''
Although ``it's too new for us to have statistics,'' Esterlene Lewis, project manager of Miami International Airport's satellite learning center, knows that the center improves employee morale and performance. ``Parents do want to bring their kids to school ... so the attendance has improved'' among employees with children at the center, Ms. Lewis says. And ``it's a very healthy environment when parents know that their children are close by.''
``It gives parents peace of mind,'' says Muriel Lundgren, director of the satellite learning center at Miami-Dade Community College. Ms. Lundgren knows this firsthand: Her six-year-old son, Christopher, is one of the kindergarten students.
``We're able to maintain some semblance of a family life,'' says Ms. Lundgren. ``We go to school together, we come home together ... [It] has made coming to work a lot more pleasant.''
Marilyn Lopez, who works in the personnel department at Miami-Dade Community College, visits daughter Ren'ee at kindergarten two or three times a week. ``I have more knowledge of what's going on in her classroom and how she's progressing,'' Ms. Lopez comments.
Ms. Gadar, who works at the college's criminal-justice assessment center, agrees: ``I can always talk to the teacher without making an appointment. ... I like having that rapport with the teacher.''
Because most of the students in the satellite learning centers were together at company day-care centers, the first day of school is less of a transition. ``They're with a lot of the same children,'' Gutierrez says. ``And it's a smaller environment'' than a conventional elementary school.
Educators and parents alike say that the more confined environment of the satellite learning centers doesn't appear to be detrimental to the children. Each satellite center has a ``home school'' that students visit periodically to take advantage of libraries and other facilities.
The satellite centers have some advantages over the traditional elementary school. For example, the student population, reflecting the makeup of the workplace, has a better mix than might be found in many neighborhoods.
``I've got a vice-president's son sitting next to a custodian's son,'' says Tekerman. ``The workplace is better integrated than the schools.''
Tekerman says he expects to open three more satellite learning centers in Dade County next school year. One will be for Dade County employees and two will be at area hospitals. And Dade school officials are negotiating with representatives of a local industrial park to establish a satellite learning center that would include kindergarten through sixth grade, the highest grade officials feel is practical.
Interest in the satellite learning centers has spread, with observers coming from as far away as Japan and Britain, and Tekerman taking his presentation to school systems around the country. He is pleased that the first satellite learning center outside Dade County will open in August at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in Leon County.
Tekerman expects that the schools one day will be as common as corporate-sponsored day care. ``The only big problem is having enlightened employers,'' he says. As more parents work, employers ``have to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.''