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Will Corporate Sponsors Help Save Education?

Above: Rock climbing at Camp Cuyamaca is possible through corporate sponsorships with outdoor sporting equipment companies.

— We’re familiar with big corporations like Petco, Qualcomm and Cricket Wireless that buy the naming rights to sports and entertainment venues. But now these deals are beginning to infiltrate public education. The San Diego County Office of Education is looking for corporate sponsors to keep its extracurricular programs alive.

Camp Cuyamaca is an outdoor school that has been operating in San Diego’s backcountry since 1946.
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Above: Camp Cuyamaca is an outdoor school that has been operating in San Diego’s backcountry since 1946.

A group of 11-year-old girls wearing jeans, harnesses and hard hats gaze at a large granite boulder. This is Camp Cuyamaca – an outdoor school that the San Diego County Office of Education has been operating in San Diego’s backcountry since 1946.

For the first time in the school’s history, the county is working with corporate sponsors. Greg Schuett has been principal at Camp Cuyamaca for 20 years.

“I am a realist and a very practical person and the main thing to me is that the kids come up here and have this experience,” Schuett said. “If we're going to be purists over where the money comes from, we're going to lose that battle and we're going to lose kids coming to outdoor school.”

The county’s Office of Education has launched a corporate sponsorship campaign to expand this outdoor program and save other programs like it. Companies help fund the programs in exchange for the marketing rights or ownership of the programs.

So far, Target has donated $50,000 towards scholarships for kids who can't afford Camp Cuyamaca. Recreation stores REI and Adventure 16 have spent $10,000 for equipment and other services.

The agency is also looking for companies willing to spend $3 million to buy the naming rights of Camp Cuyamaca.

That’s why county education officials hired Kelly Wood, a matchmaker of sorts. She says corporate sponsorships work because schools desperately need the money to survive, and businesses need new marketing strategies that build public trust.

“With today's economic situation, companies are having to be more competitive in the area of corporate social responsibility because consumers are more interested in buying and purchasing and doing business with companies that are also giving back to the community,” Wood said.

But some worry about corporate influence on school-based schools. For example, Kaiser Permanente sponsors a county education program that teaches students about food. Kaiser is now revising the curriculum to reflect its marketing theme “Live Well and Thrive.” However, county education officials have to approve of the new content.

Rodger Dougherty is director of public affairs with Kaiser in San Diego. He understands why parents would be concerned but he says this is about kids.

“As a parent myself, I have three boys, I would want to be aware of what my kids are exposed to,” Dougherty said. “I think the questions (parents) need to ask is, ‘What is the benefit to kids? What is the information they’re receiving?’ In this case, the focus is on the information. So it’s not a product or marketing campaign. It’s a campaign for health.”

The county’s Jim Esterbrooks defends the program, saying the key is making sure the office is selective with the companies they're approaching.

“Whenever the corporate community steps up to support public schools there are folks who wonder how far this commercialization is going to go. We’re not going to sell anything on the back of kids,” Esterbrooks said.

Esterbrooks says the county is in negotiations with a couple companies for the naming rights of Camp Cuyamaca. Educators at the camp say they hope it’s done in a tasteful and respectful way.

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