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Inner-city students taste corporate life and liven up dry stockholders' meetings

THE anomaly of a Fortune 500 company holding its annual stockholders' meeting in an inner-city high school is not lost on Mrs. H. L. Nickerson. ''It's certainly cheaper than renting the Waldorf-Astoria,'' she says, munching on a shortbread cookie outside the auditorium of Martin Luther King Jr. High School. Mrs. Nickerson, a Manhattan resident and American Can Company shareholder, pauses before adding: ''Besides, since our (country's) President doesn't seem to want to get involved in these issues, I think it's important someone does.''

For American Can - a conglomerate with $4 billion in revenues last year - that involvement began two years ago when it teamed up with a 99 percent black-and-Hispanic high school located on a fault line between wealth and poverty on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The success of the partnership now has American Can celebrating more than just corporate profits.

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The impetus for the pairing - as well as the annual meeting's location - came right from the company's chairman, William Woodside. Describing traditional corporate giving as a ''cheap cop-out'' whereby companies ''give money and turn their backs,'' chief executive officer Woodside says his company's approach is ''not a money-intensive program, but a people-intensive program, based on caring , feeling, and respect.''

To school principal Nellie Jordan, a widening of the inner-city students' horizons is perhaps the most important result of the partnership. Formerly a successful principal in East Harlem who was transferred to shore up a troubled Martin Luther King High, she says that working with American Can has done much to raise students' aspirations. ''I think now we'll see some of these kids become corporate lawyers, or at least go in that direction.''

The idea of bringing business and schools together is not unique to New York City. Projects similar to New York's ''Join-A-School'' program exist in such cities as Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. Companies participate in career days or donate expensive materials - and their involvement is growing.

What's noteworthy is the depth of commitment that American Can has developed toward Martin Luther King High. The company annually provides $25,000 for everything from sports uniforms to art supplies. But the real payoff, Mr. Woodside says, comes in the involvement of people - bringing the 2,100-student school together with the 1,000 employees of the company's Greenwich, Conn., headquarters.

Every week a dozen students take a van up to American Can's offices to learn how to work with computers, process life insurance, and, as junior Kyle Jenkins says, ''to get a feel for business life.'' Some students taking a building-security training program after school at company offices in Manhattan have already found jobs.

During the summer months, teachers attend computer literacy programs. And American Can employees are now a common sight at the high school, tutoring in various fields and helping supervise rejuvenated extracurricular activities.

''We tend to think of this in terms of what it does for the school, but I think it's had an enormous impact on us (at the company),'' says Peter Goldberg, director of the American Can Foundation. ''It's sensitized us, taught us the importance of the public school teacher, and, really, shown us the goodness of these kids.''

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According to Robert Kaplan, a science teacher and coordinator of school-business relations, the high school has already seen results in the three areas the partnership was to focus on: teacher morale, student achievement, and attendance.

''Ours was a problem school, with low everything,'' says Mr. Kaplan. ''But now there's a new spirit. The feeling that someone out there cares has had tremendous effect.'' He notes that attendance has jumped in two years from the low 70s to about 80 percent.

Eileen Rachaelson, an English teacher in charge of student activities, says the program helped erase feelings of low self-esteem - a well-documented problem among public school teachers. She says that ''involvement of their employees, right up to the top, has shown respect for our profession.'' Adds John Kraus, an English teacher who with American Can's help has started a photography club: ''It has revitalized me. I was burned out, but now my energies are back.''

American Can was one of three charter members of the Join-A-School program - along with Equitable Life Assurance Society and Manufacturers Hanover Trust. Nine more companies have since joined the program - although the majority of New York City's 111 high school's are still without business partners.

Woodside says he thinks more companies haven't joined because they are leery of what he considers the program's strength: the involvement of people. But he says he hopes that participation will ''take off,'' now that former New York City school superintendent Frank Macchiarola, head of a business and civic organization called New York City Partnership, has taken the program under his wing.

Mr. Macchiarola says New York companies have often had trouble ''seeing themselves as local.'' But he adds that companies are increasingly receptive to the concept of a partnership. ''It has to be an enrichment for both parties.''

Meanwhile, Mr. Woodside, conducting the company's annual meeting before 200 visiting teen-agers, fields a tough question from junior Angelique Sims during the question-answer period: How does he justify his nearly $1 million salary?

''Well, I guess that's about as direct a question as I've ever had at one of these meetings,'' the chairman responds. He explains that not one of the company's top executives came from wealthy backgrounds, but earned their money ''through hard work and a certain amount of basic intelligence.'' Under such conditions, high salaries are nothing to apologize for, he adds. A high corporate position is ''something that's capable of happening to you and others like you in the American system.'' Judging by the applause from aspiring executives in the audience, the chairman's response struck a chord.

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