Major local and national corporations are close to reaching agreements with the District's public school system on an innovative program to develop at least five career high schools here at a first-year cost to the businesses of more than $1 million.
General Motors Corp., the nation's leading automobile manufacturer, and Control Data Corp., a major computer firm, are expected to sign agreements in the next two months under which they will assume leadership to organize high school programs in the engineering and computer sciences -- two growth areas in the economy.
A third proposed high school program would specialize in communications. Executives of the Washington advertising agency of Goldberg/Marchesano and Associates decided this week to eliminate what has been in the past a famous and lavish Christmas party in favor of investing $20,000 to develop the communications high school.
Washington school superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said yesterday the career high schools should be ready to open when school starts next fall.
In addition to engineering, computer sciences and communications, other schools likely to open soon would be for the broad banking-insurance-finance sector and for hospitality professions such as hotel management. Talks are in progress with Marriott Corp. and a consortium of city banks on these two schools. Other career specializations would be added in future years.
"My concern is that our students get an idea of the range of careers open to them, particularly in our area, as well as the notion that the business community really cares about them," McKenzie said in an interview yesterday.
It is especially important, she added, given that D.C. public school enrollment is predominantly black, and "there are tremendous resources in this city . . . but our students see them only far in the distance."
McKenzie, a graduate of the District's Dunbar High School who took over July 1 as head of the 95,000-student system, said she started to work on a "private-public partnership" plan soon after taking office. She pointed out that the school system budget is "very limited, and inadequate for new thrusts to really get out and deal with new technologies and careers . . . to augment our efforts with real-life experiences and to determine whether our instruction is indeed geared to the current needs of business."
D.C. school officials emphasized the career high school programs would not replace existing academic programs. The new educational efforts, including equipment and facilities, teaching assistance and curriculum guidance from the business community, will be set up at various high schools or nearby career centers throughout the District.
McKenzie plans to seek school board approval for each career high school plan on an individual basis, after negotiations with sponsoring corporations are completed. She said board members with whom she has talked have been enthusiastic.
Specific criteria will be established for admission to the specialized high schools, similar to those for Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts and the newly opened academic high school, both of which are attended by students from all neighborhoods.
To win business support for her concept, McKenzie has been writing and talking to selected corporate executives here and across the country. Business spokesmen interviewed yesterday said the only example they knew of corporate sponsorship of a specialized high school was an Exxon Corp. venture in Houston.
McKenzie also hired a former real estate and commercial development executive, Pete Wilson, as her executive assistant for corporate relations. This is the first such post known to have been established in a public school system, although colleges and universities long have had such executives to raise funds privately.
A typical letter to a business leader in Los Angeles from McKenzie describes her program as "an investment idea . . . we're not talking about philanthropy." She pointed out that American Telephone & Telegraph Co. spends $6 million a year to teach 14,000 employes basic writing and math skills during office hours, while GM had to hire 9,000 employes to fill 1,500 jobs in one year because of rapid turnover in one specialty.
The emphasis to business on reduced costs of training, fewer turnovers in jobs and young employes with learned skills is apparently what attracted GM to what that firm considers a pilot project.
A GM spokesman described the D.C. plan yesterday as "a very good concept" that has caught the imagination of officials in Detroit despite the timing -- when the company is selling or merging subsidiaries and laying off thousands of workers because of depressed auto sales. Although the GM official emphasized that talks still were in progress, he said: "We're going to help them . . . we're very encouraged by this type of thing, getting young minds trained for engineering careers."
Goldberg/Marchesano Senior Vice President Karen Kershner said her firm is planning an advertising campaign to urge news media, advertising, public relations and lobbying firms to join in supporting the communications high school, which likely will be attached to the Lemuel Penn Center-McKinley High School journalism complex.