In Their Search for Help, Fairfax Schools Find Google

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Google marked its arrival in Reston with an open house at its colorful office on Library Street this month and the announcement of a partnership with Fairfax County public schools.

The Internet giant, with a new presence to bolster its effort to gain government business, said it plans to outfit schools with software to help students learn geography. The deal is one of 300 partnerships the county school system has with businesses, a number the schools would like to increase as the economy sours.

Companies are often drawn to the county in part because of the school system's strong reputation, said Jay Garant, coordinator of business and community partnerships for Fairfax schools.

"They tout us at every turn," he said. "But it really becomes believable when a business . . . begins to work with teachers or begins to recognize the needs that are out there."

The owner of a pie shop in Vienna mentors young students. A law firm is organizing a winter coat drive for homeless children. And a major credit card company has donated hundreds of books to school libraries. Perhaps the biggest corporate investment comes from Exxon Mobil, which spends $110,000 a year to support seventh-grade education in science, math and engineering, Garant said.

The school system is negotiating with Volkswagen, a newcomer to Herndon, to donate diesel-engine cars to the county's auto technology programs, he said. The company would train Fairfax teachers and potentially set up job shadowing opportunities for the students.

Many business leaders say they view investing in education as a means to invest in their future workforce.

The partnership with Google is being finalized, but the company plans to make an enhanced version of Google Earth available free to students and to train teachers to use it.

Garant said that the software, which has searchable maps and satellite images, could help environmental science students zoom to the Everglades or history students view the pyramids in Egypt.

Mike Bradshaw, director of federal enterprise sales for Google, said the software could be used to show off national parks or to chart the course Christopher Columbus sailed. Google is looking forward to working with "an accomplished school system" and to making "geography more fun" for students, he said.

Given the downturn in the economy, Fairfax is looking for new ways to attract private investment to the schools. The School Board recently revised a policy to allow companies or people who contribute money to have their name or logo printed on a school facility, such as a stadium.

Garant said, however, that turning to the private sector might not be a panacea.

"There's an expectation that the business community can be the savior for public schools," Garant said. "But they have to worry about their bottom line, too."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company