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Manatee Schools May Go Corporate

Christopher O'Donnell
Herald Tribune
October 8, 2009

Corporate sponsors could buy the right to have their name attached to high school academic programs under a plan being considered by the Manatee County School District.

A Jacksonville engineering firm, Stellar, has paid to sponsor an academy at the Allen D. Nease High School in St. Johns County. The Manatee County School District is considering a similar sponsorship program.

Under the proposal, companies would pay $25,000 or make in-kind contributions to be linked to a school’s “academies.” The academies are career-oriented programs within the high school, such as the Agriscience Academic Academy at Palmetto High School or the Bayshore Business Academy at Bayshore High School.

In turn, the company’s name and logo would be listed with the academy name on school and district Web sites and in marketing material. Companies may also have some input on what is taught in the classroom.

For example, a Manatee school official said future academies could include the “John Deere Agriscience Academic Academy,” or the “Ford Automotive Technology Program” at Manatee Technical Institute.

School officials in Sarasota have begun discussing the idea but do not yet have plans to proceed.

Manatee district officials say that sponsorship would be more like a business partnership than the corporate naming rights companies pay to have their name on a sports stadium.

Companies sponsoring academies must come from the same field. They would be encouraged to offer students internships and field trips and provide expert speakers for classes.

“It would have to be something appropriate that adds credibility to the academy,” said Doug Wagner, the Manatee director of adult, career and technical education.

Critics of the plan say the move is another example of schools being commercialized, and they worry companies would have too much influence over students.

“We used to name schools and buildings after people we thought should be role models. Now we teach children that brands are leaders and products are what they should admire,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group that tries to limit the impact of advertising on children.

A handful of Florida school districts have already sold naming rights to academies, including in St. Johns County. There, students study in the VyStar Academy of Business and Finance, the Flagler Hospital Academy of Medical and Health Careers and the Stellar Academy of Engineering.

Those companies pay a minimum of $50,000 per year to sponsor an academy. They also enhance the curriculum by providing guest speakers, internships, work-based opportunities and field trips, said Jay Steele, St. Johns director of career education.

Sponsorship brought in more than $300,000 for the district last year.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for business to create that pipeline of future workers,” Steele said.

Under the Manatee plan, which will be considered by the School Board Monday, companies would be asked to help make academies more relevant to the workplace.

They would be able to suggest changes to classes but district officials would retain final say on what is taught.

Wagner said the district already consults local companies to make sure career training in schools remains current.

The money raised would be used to pay for teachers and students to take certification tests recognized by industry.

For example, students in the Business Technology Education academy at Braden River can take Microsoft certification tests. Taking the tests cost $85 each.

“This was set up so students wouldn’t have to bear the costs,” Wagner said.

Contracts that bring in much-needed funding but expose children to marketing have often been a source of controversy in schools.

School districts across Florida have been criticized for earning millions of dollars by allowing soft drink sales on campuses. Districts contract with beverage companies and set their own rules for what drinks are available to students.

Anne Barrow, whose daughter Julia is in 10th grade at Lakewood Ranch High School, said she supports the idea as long as companies provide more than money.

“It would depend what the companies are bringing to the table to get their name on the academy,” she said. “If it’s linked to internship opportunities, that would be a really good idea.”





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