With city and federal tax dollars harder and harder to ger, D.C. public school officials are searching for financial help from business and industry.
To win support from the corporate world, District school administrators are talking about creating several new specialized high schools -- modeled after schools already in operation in Houston, Texas -- to provide students with better technical, job and college training.
Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said last week her staff may propose to the school board the creation of several new specialized high schools, including schools for engineering, the health professions, technologies, the humanities and an international or foreign language high school.
Additional specialized high schools might be proposed later, she said, such as a school for the hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants, airlines, etc.). Similar schools are now operating successfully in Houston.
In Houston, business firms donate money, equipment and tutors to the specialized high schools. They also help shape the curriculum by designing career-oriented courses, thus turning some classrooms into industry training programs, with jobs and careers visible on the horizon for the students.
The District already has specialized programs at three high schools: the academic high school that opens next week at the old Banneker Junior High near Georgia Avenue and Howard University; a math-science school that opened in 1975 at Ballou, near St. Elizabeth's in Southeast Washington; and the performing arts school at Duke Ellington High School for the Arts (formerly Western) near Wisconsin Avenue, which opened in 1974.
One of McKenzie's top assistants went to Houston last week to study its school system. The visitor was Peter Weaver, who holds the title of executive assistant for corporate relations, a post familiar on college campuses but almost unheard of for a public school system. Weaver's job will be to try to attract corporate support for the D.C. schools.
While Washington's business community has been providing occasional support for the public schools, Weaver said, this could be expanded tremendously if the schools had programs that related to specific business needs.
"We need to make it easy for firms to see where their money will go and what they will get in return . . . and that dovetails beautifully with specialized schools," he said.
"We'll be trying to convince firms they can do well by doing good, as Joseph Danzansky used to say," Weaver added. A lawyer and business consultant who worked for the D.C. school system 10 years ago in a tutoring program, Weaver worked for the College Entrance Examination Board here before joining the mayor's economic develpment committee when Danzansky, now deceased, was chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Houston now has 63 "magnet" schools that provide no-frills specialized education for 60,000 students, almost one-third of the school population. The latest one is a law enforcement academy, the first high school of its kind in the nation.
Houston's public schools have received more than $5 million in business and corporate contributions in the past five years, according to Houston School Superintendent William Reagan.
"This would work beautifully in Washington's school system," Reagan said in a telephone interview last week.
He also said "Washington would be a perfect place" for Houston's popular extended-day elementary school program, established to aid working parents at five schools -- soon to be expanded to 30 schools. The schools are near large corporations and business districts and offer an extensive after-school arts and extracurricular program until 5:30 p.m.
About 40 percent of Houston's students are from single-parent homes, Reagan said, and "one of the benefits of the program is that parents and children commute and spend time together."
Washington's public schools are desperate for help, said D.C. Superintendent McKenzie "because our financial base is declining." Federal support for city schools is dropping about $10 million this school year, and the D.C. City Council has made extensive cuts in the school budget.
Appealing to the enlightened self interest of business firms produced results last year when one Washington-area firm, GEICO, the area's largest automobile insurer, donated almost $600,000 to rescue the high school driver education program after the City Council cut it out of the 1980-81 school budget.
GEICO's one-year contribution provided driver education for 5,000 public, private and parochial school students in Washington. It also enabled the District to qualify for a $40,000 federal grant to teach driving to 18 handicapped children, according to Milton Sarris, assistant director of the school program.
But as of this week there were no funds for driver education in Washington this year, and school officials have been desperately seeking last-minute business support to continue the program.
The 12-year-old Prep Club, sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, brought officials from 34 firms to 10th grade classes in 25 area high schools to discuss the free enterprise system and things like job interviews and opening checking accounts. The firms then treated all 1,800 students who participated to a banquet at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
The "new thrust for major corporate support" will not just be for well-meaning gestures, random and fragmented support and contributions that disappear into the huge general school budget, Weaver said.
"There's been too much hat in hand," he said. "We need to show what we can offer in return. It's got to be a two-way street." He and McKenzie think one of the best ways of getting that support will be to establish specialized schools.
"The fact that firms like Exxon have moved their support from the university level down to high schools, like Houston's," Weaver said, shows that corporations can see benefits in helping train youths entering the job market or deciding on careers and colleges.