Student sponsorship deal raises money, criticism

Forget sponsoring football fields or high school cafeterias–that's small-time.

The Indianapolis office of Zurich-based UBS Financial Services Inc. is experimenting with a higher-stakes investment in education, "adopting" the freshman class at Herron High School as the UBS Scholars of 2010.

That designation came about after the UBS Foundation made a $100,000 gift to the startup charter school, and local employees made a commitment to tutor, mentor and otherwise support its first 92 students.

"It's really a Cinderella story," said Joanna Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, which created the liberal-arts school in hopes of developing future arts patrons. "UBS is our Prince Charming."

Finances often are tight at charter schools–especially startups. Although charters are publicly funded, state tuition support doesn't begin until classes do. And unlike public school corporations, which have separate tax levies to pay for things like transportation and capital projects, charters must make do with a flat per-pupil fee. Fund-raising can make a difference.

Still, some critics are stopping short of offering UBS a seat on the throne. The company may have provided a glass slipper full of much-needed money, they say, but at what cost?

"Anything that is advertised in a school has the implicit endorsement of the school. That carries weight with students," said psychologist Susan Linn, co-founder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Schools are in a terrible [financial] bind right now, and I'm sympathetic to that, but I don't think selling out their integrity is a good solution."

Taft is undeterred, saying the deal with UBS is different from traditional corporate sponsorships that help pay for everything from athletic facilities to school auditoriums.

"At a football field, the [corporate] name is right there, for everyone to see. But how many people are going to hear the UBS name associated with Herron High School?" she asked. "If they were trying to be strategic, trying to build name recognition, they'd go somewhere else."

Indeed, calling Herron freshmen "UBS Scholars" isn't a marketing strategy–it's a promise, said Tom Boesen, branch manager of the firm's Indianapolis office.

"We want to see these kids at their college graduations," he insisted. "We wanted to make a long-term, significant impact, not get our name on a plaque somewhere."

And if another company comes along next year with hopes of "adopting" the class of 2011?

"Bring it on," Boesen said. "The more, the merrier. It's all about the kids."

Taft is similarly enthusiastic.

"We would definitely consider" striking another such deal, she said. "What an amazing thing for a company to say, 'We're going to invest in your students.'

"This is a meaningful partnership. We're not hanging a neon sign out front. We're not selling our souls."

'Trifecta' of causes

The origin of the relationship between Herron and the company is something of a fairy tale of its own.

Local UBS financial adviser Jason Kimmell ran into Taft early this year while checking out the Harrison Center, 1505 N. Delaware St., as a possible venue for a client-appreciation event.

As they meandered through the halls of the church-turned-social-service-center-turned-artists-haven, she told him about the center's work with emerging artists and emerging art patrons–and the school, which was then a work in progress.

Now Herron High is open, with 92 freshmen following a classical liberal-arts, college-prep curriculum that exposes them to subjects like Latin, logic and rhetoric in addition to the modern-day mainstays.

For now, the school is operating out of temporary classrooms at the Harrison Center. It ultimately will move to the former Herron School of Art facility, at 16th and Pennsylvania streets, but that structure requires $3 million in renovations first.

Taft said the new charter school is a perfect fit for the neighborhood. The Herron facility had been used for arts and education for more than 100 years. IUPUI moved its art classes from the Herron campus in 2005.

Employees at Rolls-Royce's Indianapolis plant helped transform a former Harrison Center church fellowship hall into classrooms, switching gears after agreeing to help the center add studio space in its basement.

The engine-maker's contribution was to be formally acknowledged at a celebration Sept. 8. A plaque designed by one of the center artists will hang in the renovated space.

Even before the school took shape, Kimmell was intrigued by the picture Taft painted of a school that educated future arts patrons. He talked with his boss, Boesen, and before long UBS was hooked.

"I call it the trifecta," Boesen recalled, referring to the school's connection to children, education and the arts–three areas the UBS Foundation supports. "It struck a chord with us, and we thought it was something the firm would consider getting behind."

Not knowing how involved the company wanted to be–or how much money it would be willing to donate–Taft started brainstorming with Kimmell, throwing out possibilities: UBS could buy students laptops, for example, or equip the school library.

"Then the idea of sponsoring the freshman class came up," she said. "That resonated with them. They were looking for face time with the kids."

Boesen said it was the perfect opportunity for the company to make a difference in Indianapolis.

"These 100 students have our name," he said simply. "We want to be part of their lives and help them succeed."

And if the company gains good will–or business–as a result? That's just gravy, he said.

"If it increases awareness of the UBS brand, that's fine," Boesen said. "But we're doing this for the public good."

'Playing the name game'

The $100,000 from UBS will come in handy–it represents nearly 8 percent of Herron's $1.3 million budget–but it'll hardly make or break the school. Its budget was balanced before the donation came through.

Still, the additional income will help strengthen school programs and cover unexpected expenses, Taft said. Most other revenue comes with strings attached.

Next year's budget calls for $50,000 in grants or other donations; officials still need to identify a source.

"We're solvent, we're fine," Taft said, "but we still need partnerships."

Another financial question that remains is how to fund renovations to the permanent facility. Taft said the school is exploring several options and hopes to make an announcement by mid-September. But if all else fails, she'll consider "playing the name game" to cover capital expenses, too.

Kevin Teasley likes that idea. As CEO of the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, he's well aware of the financial challenges charter schools face–GEO operates two charters in Indianapolis, one in Gary and one in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Teasley has just begun exploring ways to engage corporate sponsors to help pay the six-figure annual rent payments its schools make.

"That's a ton of money we could be putting in the classroom," he said.

Although he hasn't yet considered naming an entire class after a major donor, he has discussed the possibility of selling sponsorships for classrooms or even an entire building–as is fairly common in the not-for-profit sector.

"If you go to the children's museum or the zoo, there are plaques everywhere." Teasley pointed out. "It's standard anymore."

And it's happening more and more in education.

A suburban Milwaukee elementary school is calling its entrance, cafeteria and public areas the "Ronald Reagan Elementary School InPro Commons Area," for example, after Wisconsin-based architectural product manufacturer InPro Corp. made a $150,000 donation. Closer to home, Noblesville High School's new football field was named for benefactor Hare Chevrolet following a $125,000 gift.

Purists like Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood decry all such corporate involvement, saying "sponsorships" undermine schools' ability to teach students critical-thinking skills.

"Are you going to bite the hand that feeds you?" she asked. "If a corporation is accused of doing something unethical, would the school be likely to explore that with students? How objective is the school going to be about whatever these companies are doing?"

"It just feels very inappropriate," echoed William Lozito, president of Minneapolis-based Strategic Name Development, a branding consultancy. "Where is it going to end? Is a student going to go to elementary school and get a pencil sponsored by McDonald's? It's a slippery slope."

Teasley and Taft don't buy that criticism. As Teasley points out, name brands are already in classrooms–without compensation. Textbook publishers emblazon their name on materials, computer makers adorn their products with logos, and yes, many pencils are anything but anonymous.

"There's advertising everywhere, and it's fine by me," he said. "We have two choices to raise money–public taxation or voluntary contributions. Keeping taxes low is better for the economy."

Many public schools already have gone down the sponsorship path, acknowledged Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. Still, he's bothered by the notion of naming an entire class for a donor.

"I'm concerned about using students as a commodity," he said. "It makes me very uneasy."

Taft says the naysayers just don't get it. Carrying the mantle for UBS isn't a burden on Herron's freshman class–it's a motivator. Students know someone outside the school is pulling for them.

"It gives them something to be responsible for, to be thankful for," she said. "It holds them to a higher standard."

And UBS already has gone above and beyond the initial $100,000. When school leaders told the company they wanted pen-size "flash" drives where the students store electronic material, they were delivered almost instantly.

The company also has said it will try to line up other donors to keep Herron growing–literally and figuratively. Taft will take all the help she can get.

"Philosophically, we believe that the key to our success is to be a community-based school, one that the community believes in and invests in," she said. "Corporations are part of the community."

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