‘Turning Lives Around’ Is the Goal Of Burger King-School Partnerships

By Mark Walsh — April 29, 1992 10 min read
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Mr. Gonzalez is glad she did, and he expects to graduate this spring at the academy’s second commencement ceremony.

Business involvement in the public schools is being taken a step further at the Corporate Academy here.

While other companies have “adopted’’ schools or contributed staff time or money to existing reform efforts, the Burger King Corporation and its partners started from scratch in 1989 and created this alternative school for students at risk of dropping out of the Dade County schools.

That was a welcome development for Edward Carter, now 18 years old, who was frequently skipping school at Ponce de Leon Middle School before he enrolled in the corporate-sponsored program.

“The teachers didn’t really care what you did--they were just pushing you through,’' the young man said of his neighborhood school. “The teachers here understand our problems.’'

Mr. Carter said this month that he has had perfect attendance for 29 straight weeks at the Corporate Academy, which emphasizes remediation with low student-teacher ratios, mentoring, special counseling services, and academic credit for after-school jobs.

The academy is a partnership bringing together Burger King, the Dade County school system, and Cities in Schools of Miami Inc., the local affiliate of a national nonprofit group devoted to dropout prevention.

The Burger King Academy program, as the initiative is known, is spreading quickly. Since 1989, the company has sponsored the opening of similar alternative-school programs in 17 communities, from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Anchorage, Alaska. That figure is expected to almost double by next fall, and Burger King hopes to have 60 programs in place by the 1993-94 school year.

“Our franchisees are going to the school superintendents and selling it for us,’' said Richard W. Fallon, the director of corporate involvement for the Burger King Corporation, which has its world headquarters here.

“This is a true partnership program,’' he added. “We believe it is turning lives around.’'

Burger King stresses that the academies are not designed for recruiting restaurant employees--a particularly sensitive issue because of an ongoing U.S. Labor Department lawsuit alleging child-labor-law violations at its corporate-owned restaurants.

Others Have Embraced Idea

The public schools are active partners in the Burger King Academy program wherever it has been introduced, contributing teachers, administrators, and other resources. The academies generally follow the local school district’s curriculum, and they award public-school diplomas.

Cities in Schools brings to the program its philosophy of addressing the total needs of children at risk of dropping out--going beyond educational needs to provide health care, counseling, and career planning. C.I.S., which seeks corporate donations and “leverages’’ contributions of staff time and other resources, operates more than 60 dropout-prevention programs in partnership with school districts. Most of the programs operate at existing schools, but the number of free-standing “corporate academies’’ is growing.

The corporate-academy concept allows “you take the school out of the politics of a school district by making it a public-private partnership,’' argued Ronald H. Lewis, the vice president for corporate academies for C.I.S., whose national office is in Alexandria, Va.

Cities in Schools’ first corporate-supported academy opened in Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta in 1976.

Burger King, the nation’s second-largest chain of fast-food restuarants, has now seized on the concept, but other companies are not far behind.

Goldman, Sachs & Company, the New York City-based investment-banking concern, recently spearheaded the effort to open the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, an alternative program in Brooklyn modeled in part on the Burger King academies. The New York City Board of Education and the local C.I.S. organization are also partners.

Goldman, Sachs also contributes to Burger King’s Corporate Academy in Miami and to other C.I.S. programs in Boston and Philadelphia. The firm is working to open an academy in Los Angeles.

Other organizations appear ready to jump on the corporate-academy bandwagon, Mr. Lewis said. C.I.S. has had talks with a manufacturing firm in Cleveland and the Minnesota Twins professional baseball team about sponsoring similar programs.

The corporate academies, with their close involvement of the public-school system, contrast with another widely discussed model, the Corporate/Community School in Chicago. In that effort, numerous Chicago-area corporations contributed to a build a tuition-free private school. (See Education Week, Dec. 5, 1990.)

‘We Can’t Sit on Sidelines’

Even working in cooperation with the public schools, advocates of the corporate academies acknowledge that they are capable of serving only a small minority of the students at risk of dropping out of school.

The “longitudinal’’ high-school dropout rate in Dade County was 24 percent in 1990, according to Marion S. Hoffman, the executive director of Cities in Schools of Miami.

Jack Annunziata, the director of Miami’s Corporate Academy, estimated that the program draws from an at-risk population in the Dade school system of some 15,000 to 20,000 students.

The Burger King Corporation was looking for a way to help this group when it teamed with Cities in Schools three years ago.

Given Burger King’s role as a major employer of teenagers in its 5,500 U.S. outlets, company officials felt they knew firsthand about the problems with the nation’s education system and the challenges that many youths face.

Company officials came across William E. Milliken, C.I.S.'s founder and president, at an education conference, where he discussed the Rich’s corporate academy in Atlanta. They soon began plans for their own program.

Meanwhile, Burger King got new corporate leadership in 1989 after the company and its parent, Pillsbury Company, were purchased in late 1988 by Grand Metropolitan P.L.C., a London-based conglomerate.

The new chief executive officer, Barry J. Gibbons, a Briton, gave the go-ahead for the academy program. Burger King pledged some $90,000 to the Miami program and about $50,000 each to six others it opened the first year. It gives a similar amount to open each new Burger King Academy, Mr. Fallon said.

After that initial contribution, it is up to local Burger King franchisees and other corporate donors to provide ongoing funding to sustain the programs or to open additional academies in the same community.

Alex Salgueiro, who owns 11 of the 20 Burger King franchises in the Savannah, Ga., area, recently led a successful effort to establish the program there.

“We just can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,’' he said. “I’ve seen a lot of teenagers who could have made something of themselves with a little more guidance in school.’'

The Burger King Academy of Savannah will open next fall with a possible twist: Planners are working to locate it in a shopping mall, so students can go from the academy straight to after-school jobs.

Other communities expected to open academies this fall include Denver, Wichita, Kan., and Itta Bena, Miss., the first in a rural district. Meanwhile, Grand Metropolitan will replicate the concept in London.

Commercial Motive Denied

Burger King materials tell the company’s franchisees that simply by initiating the process for a local academy, they can begin to reap “the positive public-relations effect of the program.’'

But company officials insist their chief motivation for the academy program is to improve education, not to promote their products or to groom a workforce.

The company says it prohibited the hiring of 14- and 15-year-olds after the 1990 Labor Department lawsuit over alleged child-labor violations by company-owned and -operated outlets. The suit, which was reinstated last month by a federal appeals court after a lower court had dismissed it, is the largest being pressed by the Labor Department.

Michael Evans, a company spokesman, said most of the alleged violations occurred before Grand Metropolitan purchased Burger King.

Mr. Evans also disputed recent government allegations that some restaurant managers were warned on a company voice-mail system earlier this year to hide wage-and-hour records before a Labor Department sweep. The records in question were duplicates, he said, and it was an “overzealous’’ manager in New York who urged that they be removed.

Labor issues aside, the use of the Burger King Academy name raises the question of whether the program adds to what some see as an increasing commercialism in the public schools. There is some evidence of that at the Miami academy, such as signs mentioning Burger King and the distribution of restaurant coupons as rewards for the school’s motivational point system.

Mr. Fallon, the company’s corporate-involvement director, said each local program can adopt its own name, but that the corporation refers to all of them as Burger King academies. Most school superintendents do not object to including Burger King in the name, he added.

Russ Wheatley, the executive assistant superintendent of special programs in Dade County, said the school district has not “really had any criticism’’ over Burger King’s involvement with the program.

The Miami program is officially the Cities in Schools/Dade County Public Schools/Burger King Academy. But that unwieldy title is usually shortened to Corporate Academy.

That name also better reflects the fact that several other area corporations have become major contributors, said Ms. Hoffman of C.I.S. of Miami. These include the John Alden Life Insurance Company, which sponsored a special tutoring program; the International Business Machines Corporation, which donated computers; Southern Bell; and local Burger King franchisees.

“There are so many people who are coming to the table now,’' Ms. Hoffman said. C.I.S. of Miami recently won a $300,000 matching grant from the U.S. Education Department, some of which will go to help provide mentors for Corporate Academy students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander this month called the Burger King academies “a very innovative program that is helping young people in our urban centers’’ reach the national goal of increasing the high-school graduation rate to at least 90 percent by the year 2000.

‘It’s Like a Family Here’

Students who apply to the academy must meet two or more of the Dade County schools’ criteria for being at risk. Organizers at first went to visit other Dade schools to recruit for the program, but now enrollment hovers around its current capacity of 140 students in grades 10-12.

The academy rents spartan classrooms from the Beth Israel center just north of downtown Miami. The school system will begin paying the academy’s rent next fall. The students get free bus transportation and come from throughout the county.

Mr. Annunziata, who has been a teacher and administrator in the Dade system for 24 years, takes pride in the “holistic’’ approach the academy takes to students’ needs.

For one student, that meant phone calls resulting in help getting a badly needed set of lower teeth. Other arrangements have been made for free medical check-ups for students at a nearby hospital.

Another critical element is a work-experience program under which students can get credit for their after-school jobs.

Ismael Gonzalez, an 18-year-old senior, has a job at the Bayside marketplace in downtown Miami, but is also taking an entrepreneurship course at the University of Miami.

This is his second chance at the Corporate Academy. After attending the alternative program two years ago, he returned to Jackson High School last year to be with his girlfriend. When they broke up, he started skipping school again.

“I said to myself, I’ve got to get with it,’' Mr. Gonzalez said. The academy generally does not allow students to leave and be readmitted. But its lead teacher, Maria Galvez, “stuck out her neck’’ for Mr. Gonzalez and talked other teachers into allowing him back.

Mr. Gonzalez is glad she did, and he expects to graduate this spring at the academy’s second commencement ceremony.

“It’s like a family here,’' he said. “Your teacher is like a close uncle or aunt you can talk to.’'

Mr. Annunziata added: “The students come in here deficient in skills, but given the opportunity, they achieve and they excel.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as ‘Turning Lives Around’ Is the Goal Of Burger King-School Partnerships


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