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School-Business Links Assessed

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School partnerships have strengthened the role businesses can play in promoting school improvement, but so far they have had limited impact in producing fundamental changes in the educational system, a new study concludes.

The report by Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit research organization, also raises questions about whether the current level of business involvement in schools represents a long-term commitment or is merely a crisis-driven temporary development.

The group's three-year study sought to determine the effectiveness of nine model partnerships in helping at-risk youths gain better employment skills.

The partnerships examined included two "adopt a school" programs in New York City and Houston; four programs providing special high-school classes and part-time jobs in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and Birmingham, Ala.; and three collaborative ventures that involve whole education systems: the Atlanta Partnership of Business and Education, the Boston Compact, and the Regional Occupational Programs/Centers of California.

The study found that school-business collaborations augmented the systems' ability to serve at-risk students by providing greater access to work experience, increased personal attention, and more preparation for finding and keeping a permanent job.

For some of the participating schools, the report documents higher attendance rates, improved school and teacher morale, an enhanced physical plant, and increased resources for student services.

But the research also found that the partnerships rarely encompassed attempts to affect the curriculum, the overall educational process, or the acquisition of basic skills. Nor did they significantly affect the dropout rates of participating schools, the report states.

"The study frankly acknowledges that school-business partnerships have been deficient in their ability to reach students who are most at risk of educational failure," said Sol Hurwitz, senior vice president of the Committee for Economic Development, in the foreword to the report.

Because many of the programs focus on employment opportunities, their chief beneficiaries are high-school juniors and seniors. But the students most at risk, the report notes, are likely to have dropped out before they reach the junior year.

"The end result is that school-business collaborations whose strongest component is the provision of adolescent work experience do not serve students when they are at greatest risk of dropping out," the report states.

It also points to the phenomenon of "creaming," in which school administrators anxious to keep a sponsoring business's good will choose only their best students to participate.

Businesses often foster this selectivity by complaining when students' work performance is inadequate, the report says.

Collaborative programs promising college-scholarship support for precollegiate students who earn their diplomas are the most popular recent trend in school-business partnerships, according to the report. Such interventions for at-risk youths could become an important dimension of partnerships in the future, it predicts.

But the report says that the col4laborative ventures' most powerful potential lies in their ability to create a more educated and influential constituency for public education.

Community leaders have grown much more sophisticated about the process of change in education and no longer expect quick-fix solutions, it says.

But the issue for the long term, it notes, is whether the current enthusiasm will fade as new economic conditions ensue and the slow pace of institutional change in education continues.

"One determining factor will be the condition of the economy," the report says. "If an economic down8turn increases the availability of competent entry-level workers, the pressure on business to ensure that schools produce such workers will decline."

"Allies in Education: Schools and Businesses Working Together for At-Risk Youth," was compiled from research sponsored by grants from the cigna Foundation, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, Exxon Educational Foundation, ibm Corporation, the Pew Memorial Trust, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

For copies, write: Communications Department, Public/Private Ventures, 399 Market St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19106.--rrw

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