Grade School Goes Corporate
Businesses want to build better employees, but will that really mean a better education for your child?
Policymakers across the country have also picked the upper grades as their next project. In Mobile, the business retention and expansion task force brings industry and civic leaders to the same long oak table to tackle the question. Looking out a boardroom window at an extravagant fountain and two looping willow trees, they plot the future of the Mobile education system.
A favorite program matches up public high schools and the Enterprise-Ozark Community College, an aviation school 3½ miles down the bay. High school seniors can take classes at the aviation college-and get transportation, books, and tuition all free. If they do well, they'll get some credits toward the two kinds of aviation certifications the school offers, and in some cases a two-year associate's degree. They could also get a job. ST Mobile Aerospace Engineering, a third partner, selects about 20 students as "apprentices" each year, promising to pay 70 percent tuition if they commit to accepting a job offer after graduation.
The aviation example has become a model for other nearby businesses. Saunders Engine Co., a Mobile boat repair business, is working on a training center vision of its own, a "basic technology program" that would teach students subjects like properties of metals, properties of fuels and lubricants, properties of gaskets and sealing materials, and methods of cooling engines and machinery. "The kid who gets an A in this class would be a top candidate for industry," Andrew Saunders, chairman of the company, wrote to his CEO in a brainstorming E-mail last October. "The kid who gets a D would be considerably better than the graduates we have endured from the local trade schools for years."
Fast track. Healthcare industry officials nearly achieved a similar dream, winning Mobile school district Superintendent Harold Dodge's support for a high school to produce "employable" healthcare-adept high school graduates, no college degree necessary. Disagreements over how to pay for the school (local hospitals offered to pay teacher salaries, but they would not fund the whole $32 million project) killed the idea. At least for now. "It's still on the drawing board," says chamber spokeswoman Leigh Perry Herndon.
The health careers academy's vocational nature might also have kept it from leaving the drawing board. While the chamber and its members want to build "employable" job applicants fast, teachers and activists want to make sure the students are getting other kinds of education, too-and they want to make sure nobody's getting zipped into a career track too fast. New vocational schools may fill short-term needs, but they also sacrifice meritocracy, says Carolyn Akers, executive director of the nonprofit Mobile Area Education Foundation.
Plans like that could shake education activist Haycock's confidence that what's economically right and what's morally right really are the same. But Akers says she'd rather work hard to fill both long- and short-term needs than give up on either.
Others say that a choice is necessary. "The ugly truth is that we cannot do everything," Frederick Hess and Andrew Rotherham-of the American Enterprise Institute and Education Sector, respectively-write in a recent paper. For instance, while the No Child Left Behind law preaches equity, focusing on helping children like Lawrenesha and her peers, another set of bills, called the American Competitiveness Initiative, would focus on more immediate needs, like training more engineers. Congress, Hess and Rotherham write, most likely will only find the money to back one-not both-and so far, NCLB appears to be winning.