Grade School Goes Corporate
Businesses want to build better employees, but will that really mean a better education for your child?
It took less than a year for Algene Patrick to learn all she needed to know about William H. Brazier Elementary School: rock-bottom test scores, spoiled milk in the cafeteria, and teachers who logged more absences than their students. These were the lessons her granddaughter, Lawrenesha Williams, brought home from kindergarten. When Patrick, who is Lawrenesha's custodial guardian, asked the principal about the 50 absences Lawrenesha's teacher had logged, he just cited the teacher's personal problems. The grandmother decided enough was enough, and she put Lawrenesha in parochial school.
For Trinity Gardens, a poor neighborhood in Mobile County, Ala., that sends children to Brazier Elementary, the neglect wasn't a huge surprise. In 1965, a nearby Air Force base closed-taking away 10,000 jobs-and a series of paper mills shut down in the 1990s, stealing at least 3,000 more. Most of the Gardens' residents live below the poverty line, holding two jobs to get by. Who had time to care how many fifth graders passed a state writing test? (In 2003, only 7 percent.)
But in 2004, Brazier Elementary suddenly began to change. In just one year, workers cleaned up the halls, new teachers poured in, and test scores shot up. Noting the change, parents like Patrick sent their kids back to Brazier. Patrick thanks Brazier's new principal, Merrier Jackson, for the turnaround, calling her "a godsend." But it was actually a less heavenly group that sent Jackson to Trinity Gardens: CEOs.
Four times a year, Everage Thomas, a supervisor at the nearby Budweiser Busch Distributing Co., squeezes into the school's miniature plastic chairs for a meeting with Principal Jackson on student performance. Budweiser has invested capital in her school, and it wants to see results. So Jackson, a former businesswoman, brings PowerPoint presentations, graphs, and charts to prove her students are learning. She calls Budweiser a "stakeholder." That terminology fits a district-ordered reorganization three years ago intended to use a business mind-set (and accountability) to improve Mobile's worst-performing schools. The overhaul followed a reform campaign bankrolled in part by local business groups and the Chamber of Commerce.
Businessmen and women across the country are investing in the schooling of children like Lawrenesha more than ever before, developing executive-style training programs for superintendents in places ranging from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, financing scholarships for kids who pursue math and science in Maryland, and scheduling power lunches with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who has entertained leaders from Siemens's George Nolen to the Burnsville, Minn., Chamber of Commerce. Last week, two billionaires upped the ante, announcing a campaign to make education the top issue in the 2008 presidential race, bankrolled with a historic sum of $60 million, more money than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama combined raised in the first quarter of their presidential campaigns and more than double the $22.4 million spent on the 2004 "swift boat" campaign. The education campaign's sponsors, Bill Gates and Eli Broad, plan to plaster their slogan, "Ed in '08," on bumper stickers, billboards, and television screens across the country.