Jobs Will Follow Better Schools, Say Miami-Dade Leaders

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A coalition of business, education, and political leaders in Miami-Dade County has identified local public schools as the region's biggest barrier to economic development.

The group, formed last year by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to bolster job creation in the region, released a series of recommendations last week to improve the quality of the Miami-Dade County school district, a sprawling and diverse system of some 347,000 students that is the nation's fourth largest. (Residents voted this month to change the name of Dade County, Fla., to Miami-Dade County.)

The coalition--called One Community, One Goal--concludes in its report that the county's public schools, which score well below state and national averages on standardized tests, mark the region as a less-than-ideal spot for businesses.

"Public education is the number-one quality-of-life issue that concerns relocating businesses," the report says. Business executives "maintain that the quality of public education in Greater Miami is unacceptable."

One of the group's ideas is for the Miami-Dade schools to create technical-preparation high schools that coordinate their curricula with specific industries county officials are trying to expand or lure to the area. Such industries could include biomedicine, film and entertainment, international commerce, and travel and tourism.

One such program is already in the works. Next year, North Miami Beach High School will launch a biomedical-biotechnical academy, a collaboration with Cordis Corp., a local medical-equipment company.

Problems and Potential

The demographic makeup of the region has much to do with the school system's poor performance, according to the report. In Miami-Dade County, for example, 24 percent of children entering kindergarten come from families living below the poverty line; 58 percent of public school students have a home language other than English; more than 80 percent of the adults do not have college degrees; and about 30 percent of the adults do not have a high school diploma.

Still, county officials are optimistic that if schools make some changes to better prepare their students for the workforce, the region will be particularly attractive to businesses.

"So many companies are doing business with other countries or want to expand their businesses overseas," said Blanca Mesa, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who is a co-chairman of the group. She said the county's "multinational, multicultural workforce," with honed skills, could serve these companies better than any other region.

Miami-Dade County, she added, is strategically located for international business and has a comprehensive community college and university system to help in job training.

Among its other recommendations, the group urges county schools to raise academic standards and require students to become proficient in a second language.

A Matter of Image

Another recommendation is for Miami-Dade County to develop a marketing campaign to boost the school system's image. Part of the campaign "would focus efforts on marketing the new Industry Focus Schools" and promote other school-to-work initiatives, the report says.

"The marketplace has changed. We're competing in a global economy," said Byron Traynor, a partner with the Arthur Andersen accounting firm and a co-chairman of One Community, One Goal's education task force. "If we don't have a workforce in place to meet industries' needs, we're wasting our time."

G. Braddock Holmes, a longtime Miami-Dade County school board member, said that although he doesn't disagree with what he knew of the report's major findings--he hadn't read the entire report--he "wasn't sure what the group was asking us to do that we haven't already been doing."

Miami-Dade schools, he said, have coordinated their curricula with local businesses for more than three decades and have extensive school-to-work, vocational, and magnet school programs in place.

Others, including Sam J. Yarger, the dean of the school of education at the University of Miami, had reservations about gearing schools specifically to local industries.

"We've heard most of [the task force's] recommendations before," he said. "Raise standards and test the hell out of kids. Don't pass kids who aren't doing well. But the trade school idea seems shortsighted."

Mr. Yarger added that the report's major shortcoming was its failure to address the school system's most pressing problems: language barriers and oversized classes. Miami-Dade County has some of the largest classes in the nation.

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