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Making Schools Their Business


The questions came fast and furious for William I. Savel, president of Baskin-Robbins, who dropped in Monday on a class of wide-eyed first-graders at Glendale's Mountain Avenue School.

"How many flavors do you have?" "How do you make jamoca almond fudge?" "What gave you the idea of making ice cream?" "Do you have any stores in Australia?" "Did you bring any ice cream with you?"

"Why are you here?"

It was the last question that most interested Savel, a Glendale resident and one of 170 business leaders who Monday traded their executive chairs for the principal's seat at schools throughout Los Angeles County.

"We know the schools can't do enough by themselves," Savel told students and teachers at the Montrose elementary school. "To what extent can businesses help out? That's what I'd like to find out today."

In Northeast Los Angeles, Allesandro and Micheltorena Street elementary schools, Irving Junior High School and Marshall High School also traded their principals for executives.

The Los Angeles Educational Partnership started the "Principals for a Day" program last year to encourage business leaders and their companies to learn about educators' experiences and help them improve the financially strapped school system, said John McDonald, a spokesman for the partnership.

"This is not going to save the schools," McDonald said. "But it's a learning experience, and it's something that is going to encourage involvement."

For Mike Gage, chairman of the board of commissioners of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a day at Allesandro in Elysian Valley proved that educators sometimes have to deliver more than education.

After watching 10 buses drop off students, observing the school's breakfast program for mainly low-income children and listening to a police officer lecture sixth-graders on drug abuse, Gage took over a reading class after teacher Kristina McGuire abruptly left the campus when she went into labor.

"I don't think there's any way I could get a . . . full appreciation for the difficulties of this job in just a day," said Gage, a former chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bradley and now a commentator for KNBC.

"We have to start understanding what the real needs are here."

As Gage waved goodby to students as they filed off the campus that afternoon, teacher Debbie Macias stated her needs clearly: more materials for Spanish-speaking students, more involvement by parents and, in general, more funding.

"We need to do so much with these kids, but every year it's getting harder and harder," Macias told Gage.

Nearly 85% of Allesandro's 700 students are Latino and 50% are in bilingual classes, Principal Lynn Andrews told the businessman. The school is on a year-round schedule and is still learning how to deal with school-based management, a process adopted by the school community last year in which parents, teachers and administrators share decision-making power, he said.

"We're taking on a role of social worker, counselor, doctor, pediatrician, sometimes lawyer and judge," Andrews told Gage. "It's a great responsibility. Schools can't do it on their own."

At Mountain Avenue, with little ethnic diversity or language barriers between students, a clean campus and a score of volunteer parents, Baskin-Robbins' Savel learned about a different set of problems: how to provide challenging programs for a large gifted population and supply the computer lab with more equipment.

As Principal Mabel Morse introduced him to several classes, the student orchestra and a cafeteria lunch of pizza and chocolate milk, the businessman praised teachers for emphasizing group projects and discussions. He keenly watched a sixth-grade class learning about advertising techniques and admired a demonstration of symmetry to first-graders.

"This teamwork thing is fascinating," Savel told Morse. "Usually you're always so isolated in education, working on your own problems. . . . I think this is very progressive."

As they waited for Savel to join them for lunch, several teachers sitting in the faculty lounge discussed Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed cuts in the education budget and said they welcomed the idea of promoting more teamwork between business and schools.

"Businesses need to know we need their help if students are going to be prepared to work," said Vicky Nolte, a third-grade teacher. "It's a vital concern."

Savel told Morse that Baskin-Robbins has been heavily involved in children's charities, but would look into developing ties to Glendale and Burbank schools as well. He and Morse will probably meet soon to discuss ideas, such as sending executives to talk to students or helping provide equipment for the computer lab, Morse said.

"A financial partnership would certainly be helpful," Morse said. "But we want to look at more creative ways of integrating the resources of businesses and schools."

Allesandro has already been adopted by three businesses, including a local McDonald's franchise, which sometimes donates volunteers, provides refreshments for school functions and funds some programs, Andrews said.

Gage told the principal that the DWP, which has already adopted six Los Angeles schools and operates a comprehensive education program, may be able to provide a water conservation demonstration garden or donate equipment to an expanding video education program at the school.

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