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Businesses Urged To Focus School Involvement on Special Projects

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Washington--Private businesses should encourage educators to start "cutting-edge" projects that school districts normally do not attempt because of bureaucratic inertia, but they should never attempt to play a major role in the financing or operation of schools, said speakers at a recent meeting convened here by the Conference Board, an international organization of business leaders.

Taking what she called the "heretical" position that "the recent talk about business-school cooperation is simply another chapter in tinkering with schools," a Pillsbury Company executive said businesses should get involved with schools only when they can derive a direct benefit.

Terry T. Saario, Pillsbury's vice president for community relations, said corporations devote so few resources to school contributions that businesses should target their contributions to two or three projects and "stick with them."

Ronald K. Speed, director of corporate community responsibility at Honeywell Inc., said interest in business involvement in schools and other government services "took a turn" around 1980 because the public agencies "needed a more strategic approach." That suggests, he said, that businesses should work on projects schools have not been successful in addressing, such as student violence, desegregation, and community service.

Mr. Speed noted that corporate gifts to education were shifting from higher education to the precollegiate sector. Others, however, pointed out that the businesses provide, at the most, only about 2 percent of schools' annual budgets.

Ms. Saario cited the education projects of the Standard Oil Company (Ohio), where she held a similar position until three months ago, as a model of the limits that businesses should place on their involvement with schools. All of sohio's projects, she said, serve their own interests as well as those of schools. The corporation has concentrated on three areas--urban economic development, energy and resources policy, and mathematics and science education. sohio did not divert money to projects that would not ultimately help the company, she said.

Student Awards

Frank Newman, a presidential fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said businesses should promote projects that "jar [students] out of their boredom" rather than those that support the school's existing routine. An example of the latter, he said, is the establishment of awards for students who earn a certain grade-point average.

"What an institution needs is not a blind supporter [of the routines], but someone who will offer intense, constructive [alternatives]," he said.

Mr. Newman also said businesses should develop college-recruitment and hiring practices and internship programs that are consistent with the company's most sophisticated needs. He said schools often offer courses with minimal attention to "critical-thinking skills" because school officials think businesses are interested in only entry-level job preparation. But in fact, he said, businesses need young employees who can reason well enough to advance into more responsible positions.

Ms. Saario and other speakers suggested that businesses would encounter resentment from schools if they attempted to get involved in curriculum development or if they led school officials to expect them to play an increasing role in funding of education, a development she suggested was not likely.

Edward F. Truschke, the vice president and executive director of the BankAmerica Foundation, warned, on the other hand, that businesses could "be co-opted into thinking we have a major role" in financing and running schools. Limiting involvement, he said, will require "a difficult, politically sensitive effort" by business leaders.

The speakers praised the proposals of Theodore Kolderie, a researcher at the Hubert Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, who has criticized businesses that contribute to school programs that "are supportive of the present system." Most business-school initiatives "are coming in ways that are enormously supportive of the current [school] setup, with the 'adopt-a-school' and the partnership vehicles,'' Mr. Kolderie said in an interview. If businesses want to get involved in education, they should devise programs that break down schools' bureaucratic resistance to change, he said.

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