Workplace Becomes `Extended Family'

UNTIL late August, Paul and Merelene Valder spent 40 minutes a day transporting their two young daughters to preschool programs before and after work. Then the Department of Energy opened a partnership school and child care center at its Pinellas plant, where both parents are employed by General Electric. Now the family commutes together, spending the day in separate buildings at the same facility. ``We're very enthusiastic about it,'' says Mr. Valder, manager of software database. He and his wife can even eat lunch with their children.

The million-dollar facility, funded by the Department of Energy, occupies a contemporary stucco building trimmed in red, blue, and yellow. One wing houses a child-development center for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. A second wing contains classrooms where 18 kindergartners and 22 first- and second-graders are currently enrolled.

``This is probably a role model for employers,'' says Mary Ann Goodrich, director of the program. ``It will result in increased productivity, less absenteeism, more peace of mind.'' And because students are not filling seats in conventional public schools, she adds, ``The school system comes out winning, too.''

The school department provides curriculum and faculty. A nonprofit parents' organization operates the child-care center, and parents pay tuition. GE does not subsidize the center, although the Department of Energy, which owns the property, provides the space rent-free.

``I'm thrilled that the program is now available,'' says Richard Reynolds, a GE manager whose four-year-old daughter, Eileen, attends pre-kindergarten. ``As a manager, I never used to see her very much. Now she rides with me.''

Ms. Goodrich describes it this way: ``I call it an extended family. That's what we are. That's the biggest advantage of this whole thing: We're giving children a really good start next to their parents.''

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