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How businesslike have schools become?

In some districts, students are "primary customers," assignments and projects the "products."There is talk from school administrators of "paradigms," "consensus building," "methodology," "total quality management" and "empowerment."

The tilt toward a more business-oriented way of doing things, however, goes a lot further than mere jargon. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Minneapolis-St. Paul-area businesses are involved in local schools in ways that far surpass mere donations, volunteer tutoring or the occasional helping hand with extracurricular activities.

Schools are seeing more visitors whose experience in commerce and industry is put to work training teachers, revising curriculum and even helping teachers with new courses that often are engineered with students' job prospects in mind.

Many schools have reciprocal partnerships with local businesses. The businesses help the schools and the schools give something back. The school share of such arrangements could involve using student artwork to decorate corporate offices and foyers, making classes available to business employees or using schools as testing grounds for products or to expand their customer base.

"The lines are getting real blurry between business and industry and education," said Zona Sharp-Burk, executive director of the Minnesota Academic Excellence Foundation, started by the state Legislature in 1983 to promote academic excellence.

Ironically, this comes at a time when business owners have increasingly sought tax breaks, abatements, lower tax rates and other incentives that have the effect of lowering business tax contributions to school revenues.

Business involvement in schools isn't new, but the pace and degree of involvement have grown markedly as school resources dwindle.

There's also an increasing sense that schools are failing to produce the kinds of employees companies want.

"There's a realization that businesses are not getting people with the kinds of skills that they need, and if businesses would help us understand what skills are needed, we would help produce students more aligned to that need," said Gerald McCoy, former Eden Prairie schools superintendent and a vocal proponent of the businesslike approach to education.

A poll by the Minnesota Business Partnership found that three-fourths of its corporate respondents - 49 companies - were "actively involved in supporting schools or promoting education." A survey conducted by Prepare St. Paul, a quasi-public organization that promotes school-business partnerships, found 47 such partnerships, as opposed to 27 four years ago.

Many schools have more than one business partner. At Eagan High School, for instance, school officials worked out an agreement with Apple Computer when the school opened six years ago: Apple would give them a price break on 400 computers if the school would let Apple use the school as a demonstration site.

The school entered into another partnership with Owatonna Engineering Inc. in which the company helped design the school's weight room. In return, the school agreed to let the company display the room.

Business involvement comes in many shapes and forms. Much of it still includes such community-spirited activities as tutoring and helping disadvantaged students. But now, more of it involves activities for which the businesses expect some kind of payback.

Among those needs is a better-prepared work force. That might mean that companies work with schools to devise courses that produce better math and science skills or a stronger work ethic and appreciation of the importance of punctuality. Many companies offer apprenticeships that give students hands-on experience.

Much of the payback involves making students and teachers more comfortable with business and business concepts. Many schools and companies sponsor mentoring programs, pairing students with company employees, or even school administrators with business executives, for visits to company facilities.

Companies also have become more involved in school decision-making. Business representatives often are asked to join school committees. They suggest curriculum additions and conduct teacher training and conflict-resolution workshops. They sometimes are asked to visit classrooms to critique teacher performance and help with student assessments.

But such increased reliance by schools on business is not without its pitfalls and concerns. Some businesses complain that teachers aren't responsive enough to company initiatives and that little has changed within the schools.

Some teachers remain cool to the increasing influence of business on schools. Even proponents of business-school collaborations warn that schools must be on the lookout for companies interested only in their bottom line.

School-company collaborations also have resulted in programs that have sharply divided the education community. They include widely used reward programs that offer prizes and other incentives to students who garner good grades and attendance records. The programs have attracted lots of corporate sponsors.

Also, some wonder whether broadened corporate influence will result in an approach to education that is too narrow and pragmatic to turn students into responsible citizens.

"To the extent you can apply business principles to schools, I think it's great," said Bob St. Clair, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. "But to some extent, education is different. We are a long-term enterprise involving a total delay in gratification. You can't treat students as employees in a factory somewhere."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)