Florida Mayor Merges Business, Education
> 10/13/2006 10:55:46 AM

In a bold move that may influence other districts around the country, St. Petersburg, Florida mayor Rick Baker has, since his 2001 election, encouraged large businesses to sponsor local schools. While some question the ethical implications of this practice, many of the schools involved report significant improvements in certain key areas.

Baker's project, known as Mayor's Mentors and More, began with a program called Doorways Scholarships whose goal is to provide college scholarships to students on free or reduced lunch plans. Using a program built on parental cooperation, student discipline and work from outside mentors, Doorways offers commitments to cover future college or tech school tuition costs for qualifying low-income students in grades 4-9 who work with tutors, maintain a C average, and stay out of disciplinary trouble. Since the program's inception, 700 students have received privately funded scholarships of some kind.

The mayor formerly served as president of St. Petersburg's Chamber of Commerce, and he believed that all involved parties could benefit from the increased presence of national businesses in the city's education system. To recruit for his Corporate Partners program, the mayor encouraged businesses to lend their names and funds to assigned schools. While the business leaders certainly share public concern over student achievement and school quality, their investments lead to increased exposure and the chance to cite their involvement in the community. Some critics contend that such actions constitute little beyond corporate sponsorship and private management of public education. By displaying their brand names and distributing their products in sponsored schools, one argues, these companies cross the line between philanthropy and advertising.

While opinions on the mayor's plan vary, few can deny that its results have, in quite a few cases, been encouraging. Over the past five years, the percentage of city schools receiving a grade of "A" or "B" rose from 27 percent to 63 percent. Beyond the 700 scholarship recipients, more than 1000 program mentors now work in the city's schools, and every school has at least one corporate sponsor. Baker sees his plan as a win-win equation:

"When a business thinks about coming into your city, their first question is 'What are the schools like?' because their future employees will come out of those schools, and their children will go to those schools. When someone is thinking about buying a house in one of my neighborhoods, the first thing they ask is 'what school will my child go to, and is it a good school?'"

If his plan continues to register measurable successes, other districts may implement similar policies. One hopes that the students involved will see the greatest benefits.

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