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Top Executives Become School Principals for Day

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

By the time the dismissal bell rang Monday at Mulholland Junior High School in Van Nuys, D. Kenneth Richardson, president of Hughes Aircraft Co., had listened to the school’s prizewinning marching band, learned a couple of gang hand signals and ducked into several math and science classes.

But unlike many of the approximately 170 other influential business executives who spent the day as “principals” at public school campuses throughout Los Angeles County, Richardson was treading a familiar path.

A year ago, Richardson had participated in the first “Principal for a Day” project, organized by the Los Angeles Educational Partnership to encourage business leaders to help area schools. His stint at Humphreys Avenue Elementary School, an inner city campus with many immigrant Latino students, left him believing his company could do more.

As a result, Hughes, working with the staffs at Humphreys and Mulholland, is developing pilot projects to improve math and science learning by creating new teaching methods, funding learning centers and encouraging parental involvement.

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“At Humphreys, I was overwhelmed with the high quality of people who are trying to do the job . . . and with the great enthusiasm of the students,” Richardson said. “But somewhere along the line the kids turn off the switch.

“Many companies say the best thing we can do is buy some computers and then walk away,” Richardson said. “But I think we can do a lot more than that.”

The Hughes project, which officials hope will be duplicated at other schools if it gets results, comes during rapid expansion of corporate involvement in the nation’s schools.

Ever since the National Commission on Education released its landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” in 1983, widely credited with kicking off the education reform movement, business leaders have offered ideas and resources. They are increasingly worried that American students--their future employees--are not learning enough to help U.S. firms compete with the Japanese, Germans and others in today’s global economy.

Corporate America’s role in school reform got a substantial boost earlier this month when President Bush unveiled his comprehensive strategy for education reform. Many of the proposals--from fostering competition by allowing parents to choose among schools, to developing national tests to compare American students with those in other industrialized nations--are ideas that some business groups have been advocating for several years.

Yet business also has been criticized for its opposition to significant increases on public spending for education. In his recently published book “The Work of Nations,” Harvard University economist Robert B. Reich accused business interests of working behind the scenes to obtain tax breaks and subsidies, thereby weakening funding for schools and other public services.

In California, as well as in other states hit hard by the recession, education spending is targeted for big cuts to help balance the budget.

At Locke High School near Watts, where the corporate “principals” gathered early Monday morning to launch “Educational Partnership Week” throughout California, there were references to the schools’ funding problems.

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In a tongue-in-cheek “oath” administered to their one-day principals, Supts. Bill Anton of the Los Angeles Unified School District and Stuart Gothold of the county Office of Education asked them to promise “to do the most important job in the world with no resources.”

And at Mulholland later in the morning, Richardson--sporting a blue-and-white school T-shirt presented by Bob Kinsella, his real-world counterpart--heard plenty of evidence of the budget crunch. He learned about the 1,200-call backlog that has built up from having just 10 plumbers to serve 50 schools and about the governor’s plan to eliminate funding for the state’s mentor teacher program, which provides help for new instructors. And he reached into his wallet when he discovered the band class is trying to raise money to buy uniforms--a luxury the school district can no longer afford.

Richardson said the Hughes project was designed with the budget crunch in mind.

“If this is to be something replicable, we knew it could not be expensive,” he said, adding that while Hughes is paying for learning centers, its primary focus is on providing current and retired employees to help teachers design new ways to teach those subjects.

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The project, expected to be ready for the start of the coming school year, also will include ways for parents to encourage their youngsters’ interest in math and science. Another key component will be specific goals and ways to measure the project’s effectiveness.

Richardson said Mulholland was chosen in part because its students, coming from varied ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, provide a way to see how widely the project might be applied. About 33% of Mulholland’s 1,350 students in grades six, seven and eight speak limited English. About 75% are from minority groups. Some are bused from other neighborhoods. On any given day, about 150 students don’t show up for school, and at a morning staff meeting Richardson listened to administrators tell how they try to deal with the problem.

During a lunchtime meeting of Hughes people and school staff members involved in the project, Richardson made it clear he was not looking only for good news in the progress report. Were teachers feeling threatened about the corporation’s presence? Was it unrealistic to expect measureable results in the first year, as the company wanted?

“There is a lot of excitement about this . . . but there is some anxiety, too,” said teacher Joan Elder, head of the math department, noting that some teachers are concerned that the Hughes people might be overly critical of their work or tell them how to do their jobs. The school’s solution is to begin with faculty volunteers, she added.

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