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Q&A: Business Official Extols 'Principal for a Day' Program

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In 1990, some 700 business and community leaders in California spent a day running a public school as part of a "Principal for a Day'' program established by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership and GTE California.

Since that time, the program has expanded statewide under the additional sponsorship of the International Business Machines Corporation and the California Educational Partnership Consortium, a nonprofit group that fosters school-business cooperation. This year's event will take place next week.

Mary Ann Carr, a manager in academic and community relations at I.B.M.-ADSTAR, in San Jose, Calif., and a board member of the consortium, talked about the program with staff writer Joanna Richardson.

Q. What was the impetus for Principal for a Day?

A. I.B.M. as well as other companies were realizing that our workforce is really dependent on the pipeline that was coming through K-12. Whether they entered after high school or entered at the college level into the company, we needed a workforce that was quite different than we used to have years ago, particularly because of emerging technologies and the kinds of competitive issues we were facing.

The program was going to be taken from Los Angeles to other communities in the state. I.B.M. worked with 35 different groups in Santa Clara to bring the program forward. We went from 700 [participants] in the state of California to over 2,000 last year.

Q. What has happened since you began sending executives out into the schools?

A. As a result of our involvement, we now have 30 school-partnership programs. After one of our first managers went out, we entered into our first districtwide school partnership.

The schools are lacking in funds, the class sizes are becoming almost unmanageable because of the capacity of the room, and we see equipment needs. And there's so much we can do.

Once people become aware of the challenges in schools today, they take those energies and that knowledge and they try to work out ways in which to help schools. And it's not just dollars we have found, but human resources.

The residual is that we have volunteers that are released from I.B.M. each week for two hours to donate their time mentoring, tutoring, and in staff-development training with teachers. You just see this evolution of people's involvement. And that's really all been fed through Principal for a Day.

Q. What kinds of schools do the participants visit? What do they do there?

A. We have tremendous diversity in the state of California. We have over 132 different language groups. And we tend to focus on [diverse communities] because we know that will be our future workforce.

One of our vice presidents has gone out the past two years. He went the first year to his child's school, which is in a middle-class community where he saw tremendous parental involvement.

The following year we sent him to a totally different type of school in a very low socioeconomic area, and ... it was a tremendous eye opener in terms of the large spectrum of families that we have in our communities.

Q. How do the school principals play into this?

A. We challenged every businessperson to do an exchange and have the principal come in and do a C.E.O. or executive for the day. What they found in some of the statements that the principals made is that their school organization is not much different from business. We deal with similar issues: organization, employee morale, salary issues, business plans, strategic planning, reorganization.

And I think the principals went back with a renewed respect for business, in terms of the challenges we were facing and why we needed the kind of quality workforce that we had been talking about. To see living proof of it really kind of solidified the partnership.

Q. What do you think business leaders can bring to the schools? And what can educators teach business?

A. Well, from the first standpoint, and I will be candid about this, business has not talked to education, particularly K-12. And I think what we can do is help to bridge the skill needs--information that is so critical to our businesses. We can talk about how we structure curricular programs and how we build school-to-work transition programs that are effective and really get young people into the jobs that are out there.

What education can bring to us is methodologies. Many of our companies are actually contracting people to come in to do training programs--these people are trained educators. So it's truly a two-way exchange of skills and knowledge that I think, ultimately, we all benefit from.

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