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In Unusual Business Deal, St. Paul Opens Kindergarten, Day-Care Center at a Bank

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When school opened last week in St. Paul, 21 kindergartners did not have to contend with buses, carpools, and complicated child-care arrangements. Instead, they rode with their parents to work and stayed close by all day.

The kindergartners are pioneers in an unusual effort, launched by the First Bank System and the St. Paul school district, to place a school and day-care facility on the premises of a downtown corporation.

The project is the first in a series of "workplace schools" the Minnesota district hopes to launch with Twin Cities businesses, said David A. Bennett, superintendent of the St. Paul schools.

The workplace-school program, which is expected eventually to include 1st grade and possibly other grades, is modeled after a similar school launched two years ago in Dade County, Fla. (See Education Week, Aug. 4, 1987.)

Located in a 3,000-square-foot space on the first floor of a three-building complex, the St. Paul facility offers part-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds, with child care for the remainder for the day.

Under an arrangement worked out between school and bank officials and approved by the school board in July, the bank is providing rent-free space, while the district supplies staff and materials and pays for building renovations.

The program's staff includes a kindergarten teacher and aide from the school system and two child-care professionals from the district's "Discovery Club," which offers extended-day care at seven schools.

The school is also the backdrop for an experiment in grouping 4- and 5-year-olds in an ungraded kindergarten. The two groups have been paired in Montessori schools in St. Paul, but not in the district's standard kindergartens.

The school offers two and a half hours of kindergarten for all students, another two and a half hours for 5-year-olds, and the Discovery Club for both groups.

Staff hours are staggered so there are always two adults present.

The school meets many different kinds of needs, Mr. Bennett observed.

It will allow the district to test an innovative concept, officials said, while also helping cope with a shortage of classroom space and saving on building and transportation costs.

Moreover, the school will benefit downtown workers and help lure prospective employees, said Barbara B. Roy, the bank's assistant vice president of community affairs.

The bank, which has collaborated with the district on several projects, sees the school as a way of extending its "family-sensitive practices" and fostering "community good will," Ms. Roy said.

The first Dade County "satellite learning center" has already yielded major benefits to the firm that opened it in conjunction with the school district, according to Phillip J. Sharkey, senior vice president of human resources for the American Bankers Insurance Group. The project has reduced staff turnover, absenteeism, and tardiness, he reported.

"When you eliminate these, there is a tremendous increase in productivity," he said.

While the bank's employees had first priority to enroll their children, the school was also opened to the children of other downtown employees. Eight of the 21 students are the children of government employees and other downtown workers.

Having the flexibility to open the school to children whose parents work in St. Paul but live in other areas, Mr. Bennett noted, is an "unintended benefit" of Minnesota's new open-enrollment law. The policy, which allows pupils to transfer to public schools outside their home8districts, made the school possible, he said.

Parents, officials added, have been attracted both by the potential quality and security of a program associated with the public schools, and by the convenience of not having to transport children elsewhere for child care.

Transportation is frequently a major concern for the parents of kindergartners, Ms. Roy observed. "It's that weird year where parents have to have a lot of complex organization to figure out how to get the child where he needs to be."

The program also allows parents to spend more time with their children, while riding to work and eating lunch.

"They can have lunch with the child, or buy those new shoes they need," Ms. Roy said. "They can be there in a minute if the child doesn't feel well, or if they need to meet with the teachers."

Barbara DeVahl, a commercial-banking assistant whose child is enrolled in the program, said it would provide her and her husband, who works nearby, "more time with my daughter," while giving the child a better feeling for their workplace. "It will also allow us to be more actively involved in the education process."

"The fact that the school district presented it so positively as a real teamwork effort to provide a quality program," she said, "was the single most important item on the agenda."

The district pays for the kindergarten component, while parents pay $75 a week for day care for 4-year-olds and $70 a week for 5-year-olds. Those rates are "on the low end" of the market rate, said Ardis S. Kysar, division manager of the district's extended-day program.

Kindergarten instruction at the school is based on a "whole-language, child-centered" approach that allows children to progress at their own rate of development and promotes exploration, play, and "hands-on" learning, said Carole E. Snyder, the district's assistant director of curriculum and instruction.

Although the district adopted that philosophy for all its kindergartens two years ago, she said, a lack of resources and training have made it difficult to implement systemwide. The teacher in the First Bank school, Ms. Snyder noted, "has been selected because she understands that approach and has some experience in implementing it."

The school's location also will allow the teacher to incorporate visits to the bank and other downtown businesses into lessons, she added.

While child care, which includes creative play, sports, music, and outings to nearby museums, is less structured, it is "integral and complementary" to the kindergarten component, Mr. Bennett said.

The teacher and child-care site manager will coordinate their activities so that Discovery Club activities become "extension and enrichment," Ms. Snyder said.

Anne Mitchell, an associate dean at the Bank Street College of Education, praised the worksite-school child-care concept as a positive development in the early-childhood field. But, she warned, it could be problematic "from the perspective of equity and desegregation."

"Unless you can assume that all workplaces are integrated," she said, "you will have a select group of people" enrolling their children in workplace schools.

Program officials noted, however, that they had worked out a way to tap county funds to provide reduced rates to some low-income parents.

Mr. Bennett also downplayed the notion that the school might be a step toward privatizing public instruction.

"When you are dealing with very large companies with such a diverse employee base, it becomes a microcosm of the metropolitan area," he said.

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