Beyond Day Care: The Company School

Each weekday morning, when Richard and Ellen Jones drive to their jobs at the sprawling Miami offices of American Bankers Insurance Group, Richie, 6, and Jennifer, 3, accompany them. Jennifer attends the day-care center next to ABIG's main building--and Richie heads for the company-owned school nearby. There, teachers employed by Miami's school district administer to 84 children the same curriculum they would get in a regular public school. When classes end at 2:15, Richie goes to after-school care. And at 6 p.m., the family gathers for its trip back home.

Time was when day care on the premises stamped an employer as progressive, but that's not enough anymore. A handful of companies are joining forces with school districts to set up classes inside the front gates. At ABIG, the company provides the space and the students. The Dade County Public School System puts up the books, desks--and three teachers and two assistants.

The ABIG Learning Center was the first of its kind when it opened four years ago. Since then, it has served as a model for nine other programs, all in Florida or Minnesota (table). The concept also has caught the attention of school boards in California, New York, and New Jersey, which may start similar schools. "We're not looking to create islands in the stream but alternatives to the mainstream," says Frank Petruzielo, Dade County's associate superintendent.

Miami community leaders, frustrated over tight budgets and overcrowded classrooms, came up with the idea. School efficials approached ABIG, which had a reputation as a leader in employee benefits. The insurer agreed to pony up $350,000 in construction costs, plus annual operating expenses of about $60,000. Like most company schools, ABIG's has just three grades--kindergarten, first, and second. That's because educators think kids shouldn't wait longer to switch to a regular--and bigger--school.

Setting up such an arrangement requires compromise by companies and school districts alike. One key issue is liability. At Honeywell Inc.'s school in Clearwater, Fla., the district will pay up to $500,000 in an accident. After that, Honeywell picks up another $500,000. Dade County and ABIG reached a case-by-case solution. For example, the company is responsible for a child who trips in the schoolhouse that ABIG built. But if a child falls off a desk, which the school system provided, the district will pay.

QUICK PAYOFF. Employers do get stuck with some extras. There is after-school care, of course: At ABIG, parents such as the Joneses pay for it. At Honeywell, the company foots the bill. ABIG also charges for lunch, while the Twin Towers Hotel & Convention Center in Orlando, which provides food for its guests anyway, picks up the tab for its 18 schoolchildren.

Most companies say it's all worth the trouble. At ABIG, tardiness has been nearly eliminated among the 85 employees who bring their children to work. And their turnover rate was 5% last year--vs. 14% for the rest of the company. The school can also be a recruiting tool. "I knew that by working at ABIG, I would be closer to my kids and spend more time with them," says Ellen Jones, 37, an executive secretary who was hired soon after her daughter was born. She and Richard, a 43-year-old computer analyst, can lunch with their kids and even go with them on field trips.

Still, there are trade-offs to consider. Jenny Radcliffe, an employee at Target Stores in Minneapolis, says her daughter Rowan, 6, enjoys a low student-teacher ratio of 2 to 1 at her company school. "This program builds self-esteem, and the students move along at their own pace," Radcliffe says. But she worries that the switch to public school could be traumatic for Rowan. "It's not going to be the same."

On balance, however, that may be a small price to pay. Dade County education officials say that setting up 50 more schools such as ABIG's could save the district roughly $6 million--the cost of building a new school. To encourage more companies, the Florida legislature passed a law last year forgiving taxes on property that houses a school set up with a public school district.

Company schools are just one small solution for strapped education budgets and career-dominated families. But for people such as the Joneses, the idea makes sense.

      Company                      City   Number of students
      GROUP                         Miami            84
      ENERGY DEPT.                  Clearwater, Fla. 36
      HONEYWELL                     Clearwater, Fla. 61
      MIAMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT   Miami            79
      TARGET STORES                 Minneapolis      27
      3M                            St. Paul         35
      DATA: BW
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