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Bringing Business to the Table

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"The extent of business involvement around reform is greater now than it has been."

Rosemarie B. Greco, President, CoreStates Bank

On the 35th floor of a gleaming Market Street office tower, the close alliance between Philadelphia's largest businesses and the efforts to reform its schools becomes unmistakable.

The well-appointed offices of Greater Philadelphia First--a group made up of representatives of 35 of the area's largest businesses--also house the Children Achieving Challenge, which is providing technical and financial support to carry out the district's reform plans.

The business organization acts as the fiscal agent for the challenge, which is raising money to match the $50 million contributed by the Annenberg Foundation in 1995. So far, $95 million of the $100 million in matching funds required by the grant has been pledged by leading philanthropies and corporations.

The Children Achieving Challenge is designed to be a five-year project to build the capacity of the school district to dramatically improve education. It takes its name from the broad reform agenda known as Children Achieving that was designed by Superintendent David W. Hornbeck and approved by the school board two years ago.

The Children Achieving Challenge has brought people from the school district and outside organizations together to draft a set of work plans for carrying out the reform agenda. The board of education approves the plans, which are then funded from the Annenberg grant money.

One work team, for example, focuses on school-to-career opportunities for students. Businesses are being asked to offer students apprenticeships or similar hands-on work experience. So far, about 2,500 slots have been pledged, with a goal of 6,000.

Last month, a business task force reported that it had saved the district $12 million in the past year.

Rosemarie B. Greco, a former Philadelphia school board member who is now the president and chief executive officer of CoreStates Bank, says business leaders understand the critical link between a well-educated workforce and the economic viability of the city.

"This is not about simply saying we should take care of our kids," she says. "We are not talking simply about a moral obligation. We are talking about framing it in a context of a business factor, a critical success factor."

The district's reform efforts have galvanized many business leaders, she says, partly because of the emphasis on involving as many partners as possible.

"The extent of business involvement around reform is greater now than it has been, in my recollection or experience," Greco says.

Leading Philadelphia businesses also have worked closely with district administrators to help them improve management and productivity in the $1.4 billion-a-year business.

Last month, a business task force that has been examining transportation, facilities, human resources, food services, and information technology reported that it had saved the district $12 million in the past year. The goal of the task force is to net between $30 million and $45 million in annual savings in the next three years.

Richard L. Smoot, the president and chief executive officer of PNC Bank and the chairman of Greater Philadelphia First, praised the district's emphasis on accountability.

"Mayor [Edward G.] Rendell said his support of your reform efforts--especially your Children Achieving agenda--was 'unequivocal,'" Smoot told Hornbeck at a press conference to announce the savings. "That's about as straightforward a term as exists, and that is exactly what our support will be as well--unequivocal."

Supporters of the district hope that efforts to make its business functions more streamlined and cost-effective also will garner support among legislators for more funding. Smoot called for money for new technology to allow the district to manage itself more efficiently.

Still, not everyone in the business community is convinced that the city's public schools can pull out of their downward spiral.

Business leaders, through the Chamber of Commerce, didn't argue against Gov. Tom Ridge's two unsuccessful attempts to pass voucher legislation for Pennsylvania.

"The business community is saying, 'Look, we've got to try everything,'" Greco explains. "I do not subscribe to [vouchers] as a panacea, but I'm willing to experiment with that, too."

Vol. 16, Issue 21, Page 30

Published in Print: February 19, 1997, as Bringing Business to the Table
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