Columbia Daily Tribune
Sunday, December 30, 2001

Crossing the Line
Columbia Public Schools and the local business community have a cozy relationship that at least one critic says results in the exploitation of children.

By Cory de Vera
Tribune Staff Writer

Fifth-grader Emily Brennan was excited when she got a chance to be on the radio. She was part of the Russell Elementary School choir that belted out the Lee’s Tires’ jingle in a commercial the students cut before school last month.

"Some of us were worried: Would we sound good enough?" Emily recalled. "Others were too excited to be nervous."

Her mother, Laura Brennan, agrees it was a good opportunity. "They aren’t getting compensated, but I think they are thrilled," she said. "They can grow up and say, ‘My voice was in a commercial.’ "

The tire commercial isn’t the only example of a local business using Columbia elementary school students to promote products or services. Last month, Russell third-graders mugged for cameras on KOMU’s hourlong "Pepper & Friends" until the last few minutes, when they were given the cue to sing about their love for C.B., Callaway Bank’s squirrel mascot.

It’s a disturbing trend, said Emily Heath, program director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based not-for-profit organization.

Heath said the scene from "Pepper & Friends" sounds like a perfect example of a business taking advantage of a captive audience.

"That’s clear exploitation of children," she said. "It sounds like they were forcing third-graders to sing a jingle for a business — using them as props for a commercial. And they were wasting class time."

Heath’s organization helps families around the country lobby school boards to enact policies that protect students from being exposed to commercial messages in public schools. It was founded in 1993 to fight Channel One, an organization that donates television equipment to schools on the condition that students watch a few minutes of commercials each day.

"We certainly aren’t saying businesses don’t have an investment in education — they should be involved," Heath said. "But it should never be contingent on kids or parents buying their products."

Columbia Public Schools administrators claim to have one of the largest partnerships with the business community in the country. But the district does not have extensive guidelines governing the relationship between businesses and students. District policy says no one is allowed to solicit to students or staff unless administrators think the service will "significantly advance the mission of the school."

"We do give a good deal of leeway to business partners because the partnership goes both ways," Superintendent Jim Ritter said. Typically, students serve businesses by, say, sending a choir to perform at office Christmas parties.

When Russell third-graders sang the song for Callaway Bank on television, it was part of a ceremony celebrating a new partnership between the bank and the school’s third-grade classes, said Jolene Schultz, the district’s director of school and community programs.

The district always has some sort of assembly or event to recognize a new partnership, and the only reason this one was televised was because Russell Elementary also has a partnership with "Pepper & Friends."

"To me, it wasn’t advertising, it was just saying, ‘Welcome to our school,’ " Schultz said. "They will probably never sing the song again."

With the signing of Callaway Bank, 122 businesses have teamed with schools, grade levels or departments, Schultz said. Before they sign on, Schultz talks to them about what they can expect.

"I tell them it is really hard for us to give back to you because you give so much to us," she said. "Ninety-eight percent say they do not expect anything from the schools."

She said that although the businesses aren’t there to advertise to children, it is a given that the partnership increases the partners’ name recognition among students.

Typically, the business partners provide volunteers who read to students, mentors who work one-on-one with students and lots of job-shadowing opportunities. They also might donate incentive prizes or other supplies. Last year, volunteers spent more than 300,000 hours in local schools. A significant chunk of that time was from volunteers provided by businesses, Schultz said.

Callaway Bank President Tom Smith said when district staff members approached him about joining Partners in Education, he understood that the bank wasn’t there to sell itself to students.

"You don’t join Partners in Education with the goal of making money from contact with kids. If they learn about savings and finance along the road — 10, 20, 30 years down the line they will remember us and then be a good customer."

So far, his bank has displayed artwork created by Russell students. Smith hopes to send some employees to help with a short course on economics — a course that will be generic, not specific to his bank. Students also will have the opportunity to open an account with the bank.

Brennan, who is also the PTA vice president at Russell, said most parents keep an eye on the role business partners play in the school. For the most part, she had only praise for the partnerships she has observed at her daughter’s school. Gerbes has donated school supplies and food for parties and given the school a discount on supplies for special projects. The students love shadowing camera operators and story producers at "Pepper & Friends," and they learn things that excite them about working with Russell’s closed-circuit television system, she said.

"I’m not sure what Paul Pepper gets out of it other than the goodness of being a partner," Brennan added.

On the other hand, she remembers with less affection a bank that teamed with the school when her children were younger. "My impression was that all they wanted to do was get kids to open accounts, and I didn’t see that they were actually giving back," she said. "Callaway Bank has already proven it is different. They donated things for our Spring Fling."

The superintendent said he has watched the Partners in Education program evolve during the past 17 years. The role businesses play in educational institutions around the country are evolving as well.

"The university has a deal with Coke right now, I think, and they get a good deal of revenue from it by limiting the types of machines," Ritter said. "We’ve been offered those kinds of things — money and technology — and chosen not to go that route. The reason is we’ve got pretty young, impressionable kids."

As budgets get tighter, Ritter said, he would not be surprised if school board members ask him to take another look at some of those offers. Earlier this year, board member Elton Fay suggested the district consider having a commercial sponsor foot the bill for a new scoreboard in exchange for having a logo on the board.

Ritter said he hadn’t heard the Lee’s Tires’ commercial featuring Russell fifth-graders. He said he hoped it avoided giving the impression that the school endorsed the company.

Lee’s is not an official partner in education with the school district.

"The idea of performing for someone who is not a partner — I don’t think businesses are generally calling us wanting us to do that," he said. "Certainly if students want to do that they can, but in most cases we wouldn’t be involved.

"The issue is an endorsement by the school. If the commercial doesn’t identify who the kids are and they are back there singing, that’s one thing. If they are identified, it might look like an endorsement by the school."

Ovie Lee Stidham, the owner of Lee’s Tires, said the commercial wasn’t intended as an endorsement by the school, but rather a chance to give children some nice exposure.

He thought a commercial with kids would be unique, and his marketing coordinator — a parent at the school — suggested using the Russell choir. The parent approached choir director Ed Hanson, who got permission from the principal and sent home letters to families to make sure everyone was comfortable with the project. None of the choir members opted out, Hanson said.

"We wanted to have the opportunity to show kids that music is used in a lot of different areas, including jingles," Hanson said.

Many of the children already knew the jingle, he said.

Stidham said he’d only had positive feedback about the commercial and that he never intended to take advantage of the children. He also noted that he didn’t pay his own grandchildren when they appeared on a previous commercial.

"I think it helps their self-esteem as much as it helps me," he said.

Reach Cory de Vera at (573) 815-1705 or 

FAIR USE NOTICE: This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of education issues, issues of democratic process, corporate accountability, social justice and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

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