Originally created 05/27/98

Extended care offered for fee



HOUSTON -- If Ashley Lyon or Teka Nicholas has a problem at school, Mom is close by.

Ashley's mother, Rosanna, works at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a short hop by car from the school Ashley attends. Teka's mom, Jasmine, works just two blocks away at the Texas Orthopedic Hospital.

The closeness is intentional. The school, the Medical Center Charter School, is one of about 30 nationwide located near where parents work rather than where they live. All have opened in the past decade.

From Florida to California, children from kindergarten up to the fifth grade ride with their parents to schools at or near an airport, corporate complexes, downtown business centers and hospitals. In Florida City, Fla., 38 children attend school on Florida Power & Light Co. property, outside the Turkey Point nuclear power plant where their parents work.

Proximity makes sense for working parents. Many drive as far as 90 miles to jobs at the medical center, and long commutes steal time. Worries about children can be a mental distraction. Even minor illnesses can cause parents to miss work. And unexpected late hours can mean chaos.

"It's a lot more settling on the mind because you're so close," Teka's father, chemical engineer Fred Nicholas, said as he dropped off Teka and her 3-year-old sister, Kyena, at the medical center school building.

When one of his daughters had a fever once, he said, "My wife just ran over."

Mom's health care background wasn't absolutely needed. The school has a nurse and licensed clinic. For a fee, ailing children can be kept in a sick bay rather than sent home, disrupting parents' work schedules. Before- and after-school care also are offered for a fee.

The extended care and convenience make for happier and more productive employees, say the businesses backing such schools. Parents, especially fathers, become more involved in school. The commute offers quality time.

"The drop-off time and the pickup time are some of the best time they can spend with their children," said Jane Royse, work-family administrator at 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minn. "Their parents also have the opportunity to come in the school, eat lunch and volunteer."

3M employees can send children to the Eastside Workplace Kindergarten, housed nondescriptly -- for security reasons -- in a strip mall outside the St. Paul corporate headquarters.

As is typical, the company provides the space, upkeep and maintenance, while the school district supplies teachers and textbooks. The 50 pupil slots are filled by lottery, with preference given to children of 3M employees. Only four pupils have parents who work elsewhere.

The American Bankers Insurance Group was among the first to open such a school when it started offering classrooms at its Miami headquarters in 1987. The company saw it as a way to improve benefits while helping Dade County schools deal with overcrowding. More than 200 children from kindergarten through the fifth grade now attend the school, which the company recently paid $1.3 million to expand.

Many teachers enjoy working at such schools, often run as satellites of other elementary schools, because of the smaller, less-crowded buildings, closer contact with parents and less contact with administrators.

Surprisingly, there's more economic, racial and ethnic diversity at work-site schools than in most neighborhood schools, backers say.

The school at Houston's sprawling medical center draws pupils from 10 different school districts and a variety of countries. More than two-thirds of the children are black, and one-third qualify for free or cut-price lunches.

The school, set up as a charter school, receives state money but is free to set its own rules and curriculum. Unlike others, the school opened without a corporate sponsor.

National sites

Different kinds of work-site schools operating nationwide:

Dade County, Fla.:

American Bankers Insurance Group, based in Miami, is home of the American Bankers' Satellite School, which opened in the 1987-1988 school year. The school has 10 teachers serving 219 pupils in kindergarten through the fifth grade.

Des Moines, Iowa:

A group called The Business/Education Alliance opened the Downtown School in August 1993. It serves

144 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade. Located in an office building, the public school serves employees of 19 sponsoring businesses joined by a network of sky-walks.

Houston:

The Medical Center Charter School, chartered by the state in 1996, serves children whose parents work at the Texas Medical Center, a 675-acre complex of hospitals and research institutions employing more than 51,000 people. The school gets state money.