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Corporate sponsorship in schools can harm students, experts say

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For schools facing shrinking budgets, a branded scoreboard on the football field or advertisement on a school bus can bring some much-needed cash. But such corporate sponsorships also could undermine students' critical thinking skills, education policy experts warn.

While commercialism in schools can directly harm students – marketing sodas and candy undermines nutrition curriculums, for instance – it also might discourage students from thinking critically about the brands, messages or topics sponsored in their schools, according to a report released yesterday by the National Education Policy Center.

"It's a whole panoply of marketing methods now available to schools, and it's becoming more and more (prevalent)," said Alex Molnar, lead author of the report and a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. "The goal of it is to become more integrated into the pattern of everyday school life, so it's hard to tell where the advertising begins and ends. … These businesses are there for the kids? No, they're not. They're there for themselves; they're there to make money."

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After analyzing cases of corporate engagement in schools in North America and Ireland, researchers concluded that the missions of schools and the goals of corporations are inherently at odds: "When corporations enter the schools, there is going to be pressure to create student experiences and shape student attitudes in ways that support, or at least do not undermine, the corporate bottom line."

Researchers called on schools to pass on corporate sponsorships until they are proven to cause no harm to students and to also demonstrate educational benefit.

Schools that have opened their doors to corporate sponsors say those thresholds have been met. In California, several school districts in recent years have adopted policies to allow corporate sponsorship and grant facility naming rights. District officials say they vet partnerships carefully, banning those whose products conflict with school policy.

At Santa Rosa City Schools, corporate sponsorships and naming rights are so far limited to career technical education. The sponsorships can be part of the educational process, said Nancy Miller, director of career technical education and community outreach for the district.
 
"We go through a training with the students on critically thinking about what the various industries would mean to their programs," Miller said. "We go through that exercise with students: Who is important with your industry? What would happen to the industry if that particular company went away? What would happen if Chrysler went away in the American auto industry?"
 
In January, the district will finalize its first corporate partnership: a $1 million deal to name its new geospatial technology center. For students, the deal means more than just a name-brand building, Miller said. 
 
"We would hopefully want people from the industry to come in and speak to our students about career opportunities in the field in general, but also with their organization," she said. 
 

Education Funding PartnersA mockup from Education Funding Partners, a firm that connects schools with corporate sponsors, shows a sponsored scoreboard.

For the company, which Miller said she could not yet disclose, "it's the development of your next workforce." The company has asked to use the building during the summer, when school is not in session, as a training center for its employees. Local colleges also will use the facility for its observatory and weather station, she said. 

 
Such opportunities could not have happened without the naming deal, Miller said.
 
No sponsorships have been approved yet at the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, but once in place, they could generate as much as $1 million a year, said Lillian Leopold, the district's director of grants and communications.
 
"We've cut more than $32 million from our budget since 2008-09," she said. "There are things we can't offer anymore, and it'd be great to bring back some of those student programs."
 
Potential partners include clothing companies, auto insurance providers and local banking institutions, Leopold said. Sponsorships in the classroom are off limits, as are materials that promote soda, energy drinks, candy, alcohol or tobacco. All proposals are reviewed by an advertising committee made up of teachers, administrators and parents and are subject to final approval by the school board.
 
Leopold said she's not worried that corporate sponsorships will detract from critical thinking. In fact, she said, critical thinking is part of the curriculum starting in seventh grade.
 
"Each year, there's some piece of advertising that students have to write an assignment on – take it apart, look at what the messages are, what the unwritten messages are," she said.
 
Leopold said she did not know if the school's corporate sponsors would be subject to students' advertising assignments. Still, she said, "I think our students are very media-savvy; our students are very critical thinkers. We've never had an issue with them speaking their minds."
Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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