School’s In at Work

By Roseanne White Geisel May 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, June 2005Working in partnership with school districts, companies can create workplace schools that benefit everyone—​working parents, children, employers and the community.

At nearly 50 workplaces around the country, it’s “take your child to work day” every school day of the year. No, these companies aren’t breaking child labor laws; they’re recognizing and fulfilling a need for working parents to balance work and family and to give their children a good education—through workplace schools.

Companies that invest in establishing elementary schools or kindergartens on or near their workplaces say any costs and associated responsibilities are more than offset by the competitive edge they gain in hiring, reducing turnover, developing a happier workforce and building good will in the community. Many employers find that the schools are a natural extension of on-site child care centers for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Working parents say these on-site schools reduce stress, generate more family time and get them more involved in their children’s education.

While the current number of workplace schools nationwide remains relatively small, there is the potential for solid growth in the future, according to experts such as Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at Reason Public Policy Institute, a Los Angeles-based think tank. That’s because corporations are moving beyond the concerns and economic challenges caused by the 2001 terrorist attacks, and financially squeezed school districts are becoming more receptive to corporate involvement that improves educational opportunities.

If publicly financed, workplace schools operate either as charter schools or contract schools. A charter school is designated by a school district, state board of education or other governing body that allows the school to act independently of local school district regulation, according to Snell. Charter schools are eligible for public school funds for each child they take from the school district.

A contract school is a partnership where the local school district operates the school on a corporate campus or in a business district as any other public school, and the company involved provides support, such as security and physical maintenance of the building.

Companies can choose whichever type works best for them, provided it satisfies state laws and school district parameters. Corporations also may contract with private firms to create and operate on-site schools.

Whatever the form, companies with workplace schools have found that this employee benefit pays off in numerous ways—recruitment, retention, enhanced employee morale and, more indirectly, improved education for students, which builds a smarter workforce for the future.

Schooling in the Sunshine State

Among the states most conducive to workplace schools is Florida, which is the only state that has specific legislation allowing contract schools, Snell says. Additionally, Florida is the only state that allows employers to host schools strictly for their employees’ children.

Assurant Solutions, a Miami-based specialty insurer, was among the pioneers of workplace schools. On its campus, the company has a kindergarten through fifth grade contract school operated by the Miami-Dade County public school system.

The school, which opened in 1987 and grew grade-by-grade as enrollment rose, now has 250 students—all of whom are the children of employees. The company accepted the local school district’s invitation to offer an alternative that would help ameliorate the overcrowding of schools. The company already had a day care, “and it was a natural outgrowth to consider going further,” says Audrey Steiger, senior vice president of human resources with overall responsibility for the school.

Assurant supervisors say employees are more productive and absenteeism is reduced among workers whose children attend the school. Also, turnover for these employees is between 5 percent and 7 percent, compared with 16 percent for the rest of the employees in Miami, Steiger says.

Having employees’ children in the workplace school “keeps people more engaged in the workplace,” believes Steiger. “It contributes to success for the student, the parent and the organization.”

Carolyn Jarro, whose children Loegan, a fourth grader, and Summer, a second grader attend Assurant’s Satellite Learning Center, finds that having the school on-site allows her to be more engaged at work. It also allows her to have a close-up view of her children’s education and enables her to get more involved in school programs and activities. She also feels a personal relationship with her children’s teachers.

These are benefits that Jarro, the company’s employee relations coordinator in the HR department, doesn’t take lightly. “I don’t take it for granted at all,” she says.

Other employees—and potential employees—also value the school. Karen Viera, SPHR, Assurant’s vice president of human resources, says the school helps her recruitment efforts. She recalls a consultant who applied for a staff position and was willing to relocate from Tampa, Fla. “The big draw was the day care center and that her child will go from day care to the school,” Viera says.

Not far away in Miami Beach, the Dade County-affiliated Satellite Learning Center is located on the campus of the Mount Sinai Medical Center. The school offers kindergarten through second grade for children of medical center employees and Miami Beach municipal employees.

Like many other workplaces with schools, Mount Sinai also offers a child care center that accommodates those under kindergarten age. The satellite center is “a unique environment dedicated to nurturing children” which enhances the medical center’s community reputation, says Georgia McLean, director of human resources. “The satellite center is just another value added to the program and helps children transition from pre-kindergarten to second grade” before leaving the campus, she adds.

Mount Sinai’s Satellite Learning Center is affiliated with North Beach Elementary School, which continues to fifth grade. Employees’ children enrolled in North Beach can catch a bus from the medical center, enabling families to drive to work together.

At least one family appreciates such no-hassle commuting. Terry Ramsey, a registered nurse at Mount Sinai, and his wife Cristina Ishihama, a physical therapist at the medical center, have two children at the on-site satellite center. Naomi is in second grade and next year will be bused right from the medical center campus to North Beach

Elementary School three blocks away. Gabriela is in kindergarten, having moved on from the medical center’s child care center.

“When we get ready in the morning, we are all going to the same place,” Ramsey says, which simplifies their day.

Perks such as this enhance recruitment and retention at Mount Sinai, McLean says. “People value the fact that children can be at the same place [or near] where they are working.”

Ramsey and his wife are much more involved with the school and much closer to teachers because of the school’s proximity to their workplace. “Very often, we even go have lunch with the kids,” he says.

He adds: “We effectively have a private school for our children, and we don’t have to pay [for it].”

Mount Sinai’s Satellite Learning Center imbues employee loyalty. “We both left for a period of time and came back,” Ramsey says.

Meeting Employee Needs

The value that parents place on having both a high-quality school and trustworthy, nurturing child care before and after school led Allstate Insurance Co. to add a kindergarten to its early childhood development center.

Kindergarten in the Chicago area is generally half-day, explains Anise Wiley-Little, director of diversity and workplace programs at the Northbrook, Ill.-based insurer. “It was really important that we offer [full-day] kindergarten so parents can balance work and professional lives,” she says.

Sheryl Hodges agrees. An attorney with Allstate, Hodges and her husband, John Amidei, a procurement specialist at the insurer, enrolled their six-year-old twins, Lara and William, in the company’s kindergarten. In addition to being full-day, “this program does not have nearly the [number of] teacher days or holidays that a public school does,” Hodges says.

Allstate discovered the need for a full-day kindergarten through its annual employee survey, Wiley-Little adds.

Recognizing parents’ needs strengthens the bond between the employer and employee, says Hodges.

Convenience aside, “the most important thing is the quality of the kindergarten experience,” says Hodges, whose children also attended the day care and preschool programs at Allstate. She believes the school is high quality, pointing out that the children get a minimum of four-and-a-half hours of curriculum daily, in a class of 16 students with two teachers and often a student teacher.

Hodges says the twins’ teacher sends daily e-mails telling the parents about activities and what the children learned from them.

Another advantage of having your child in a company school is that “it fosters a rapport among parents who are also co-workers because they talk about what happens in class,” Hodges says.

Community School Model

While having your child on the same campus is a boon for parents, providing an excellent school nearby also is well-received.

In the center of the downtown Des Moines, Iowa, business district is a public elementary school through fifth grade supported by corporate members of the Business/Education Alliance, an offshoot of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce aimed at creating partnering relationships between business and education. The Downtown School is publicly financed, but the corporations contribute in-kind donations, assistance with school building upkeep and the financing of a professional development center for teachers. [how much does it cost companies to be in this alliance?]

The school district was open to new education methods, recalls Sue McGinnes, SPHR, vice president of human resources at Nationwide Insurance Co., who is on the alliance board. The school offers a research-based learning approach where students sit in creative pods and delve into projects designed to give an in-depth knowledge of a subject, McGinnes says. The waiting list for the school, which is open to students from the metropolitan area, is about 600 names long, she adds, with people signing up when they learn they are expecting a child.

The employers benefit from the school in multiple ways. “The fact that [the city of] Des Moines is widely being recognized as a center of educational excellence is one of the attractions in bringing in employees from other states,” McGinnes says.

Additionally, she says, “I think the business community realized it’s a customer” of the school system, and so needed to forge a partnership. “A well-educated student turns into a well-educated employee.”

HR Goes to School

When companies get involved in establishing schools and supporting schools, they can do so in a variety of ways.

“Our role is one of support,” says Assurant’s Viera. “We do not interfere in the day to day, but we support them.” For example, the company “spent quite a bit of time going over safety policy and procedures,” she says. Assurant handles physical maintenance and security for the on-site school.

As a liaison between the company and the school, Viera has encountered parents with school-related problems. “It does happen, but it is unusual,” she says. The first step is to send them back to school officials. HR gets involved only if those channels have not resolved the problem.

Steiger says Assurant spends about $200,000 annually on utilities, maintenance, landscaping and security for the school. Over and above that, the school is funded like any other public school.

At Mount Sinai Medical Center, the director of child care oversees the Satellite Learning Center and works closely with the principal at the North Beach sister school. Mount Sinai also provides maintenance and custodial services for the learning center, which has 90 students in three grades. McLean says costs are minimal because the school is financed by the Dade County public school system.

Not all of the schools are run in cooperation with public school districts. Allstate’s kindergarten is operated by Bright Horizons Family Solutions Inc., a child care and school management company headquartered in Watertown, Mass.

A Bright Horizons program manager and regional director oversee Allstate’s Little Hands Child Development Center program. The insurer’s HR staff members also devote significant time to the early childhood development center and kindergarten.

“We’re working with Bright Horizons on a daily basis,” Wiley-Little says. “That’s something we want to do,” she adds, saying that Allstate wants to ensure that its employees and their children who attend the center are completely comfortable.

HR staff members help Bright Horizons find local teachers and act as a liaison between parents and the center. Additionally, Allstate’s legal staff offers legal guidance for the center.

The HR department also oversees registration of the school and center, which have long waiting lists. “That’s always challenging,” Wiley-Little says. “But it’s a highly rated program, so parents understand it’s no different than other highly rated centers [that have waiting lists]. They clearly anticipate and expect it.”

The costs of the child development center, including the kindergarten, are partially offset by tuition from parents.

The Future of Workplace Schools

Launching a workplace school requires thoughtful planning that includes representatives of all groups involved: host company executives, employees, the school district and the teachers union, according to the “Satellite Learning Centers ‘Best Practices’ ” manual produced by Assurant, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the South Florida Annenberg Challenge, a government education initiative.

A key initial step, according to the manual’s planning checklist, is to survey employees to determine the need for the school and before- and after-school care. The duties of each party must be carefully outlined and a timeline for a completion of each step developed, according to the manual. Communication throughout the process and marketing of the school also are necessary for success.

Companies that choose to create a charter school could work with a charter school management company to establish and run the school.

To get a school off the ground, “you really have to be a motivated actor. There has to be someone who champions the idea and sees it through,” Snell says.

With President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted a national rating system for schools, a lot of schools must be revamped, opening the door to corporate involvement. “There’s a great opportunity out there, and it’s frustrating that more corporations and school districts aren’t taking advantage of it,” Snell says.

John Hage, president of Charter Schools USA, a charter school management company in Cape Coral, Fla., believes several more workplace schools will start up in the next two years. At first, companies believe them to be “a benefit that’s too expensive,” Hage says. But, he says, they quickly realize that the return in attracting and retaining good employees with workplace schools can pay off bigger.

“It’s the most progressive quality of life benefit you can offer,” Snell adds.

Roseanne White Geisel, a freelance business writer and editor in Arlington, Va., is the former managing editor of Business Insurance Magazine .​

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