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Top corporate leaders in this Midwestern metropolis of 1.3 million people have decided to do something about their public schools other than putting money into feel-good projects.

Earlier this year they hired a North Carolina school superintendent and gave him a $250,000 annual budget to look for ways to improve the schools in the inner city and in 10 surrounding suburban districts.A group of Greensboro and High Point business executives who want to make education a priority in Guilford County flew to Indianapolis Thursday to see what they are up to. The group was led by Jim Melvin, chairman of 1st Home Federal in Greensboro, and John Thomas, head of Thomas Built Buses in High Point.

Thomas Houlihan, former superintendent of the Granville County schools, told the group 39 chief executives of Indianapolis' biggest companies have formed Community Leaders Allied for Superior Schools - CLASS, for short - to bring about ``profound and substantive change' in the schools.

An Indiana native, Houlihan was hired away from Granville County last spring to become full-time president of CLASS.

The Indianapolis business leaders were alarmed that the schools were turning out students unprepared for the job market, Houlihan said. And they were tired of giving money to schools for projects that never seemed to bring about permanent improvement, he said.

The executives have agreed to fund CLASS for a minimum of five years. Their companies will be assessed dues based on company sales and employment size.

Houlihan's job is to work with the schools in developing creative and innovative programs and to obtain grants both to fund such programs and to do research and development.

CLASS already has landed a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis for this purpose. But because CLASS is still new, no specific programs will be proposed until an overall plan can be adopted by the CLASS directors later this year.

Houlihan cited several foundations in the Piedmont that could be approached if the North Carolina visitors start a similar program. Houlihan was with North Carolina schools for 18 years and was a finalist for the Guilford County superintendent's job last year.

Houlihan and several business executives who met with the Greensboro-High Point group for lunch emphasized that CLASS is intended to be a ``school-business partnership.' But they also stressed that they want to come up with improvements that will last into the 21st century.

``We want more than just the feel-good approach,' Houlihan said. ``We want to change the culture of how the schools operate. Unless we do that, any changes will be superficial and will not last.'

The Greensboro-High Point group was composed of nine members of the Greensboro Development Corp. and the High Point Partnership, non-profit organizations used by chief executives in the two cities to support programs of interest to them.

Both organizations have made education in Guilford County a top priority.

Melvin, president of Greensboro Development, and Thomas, leader of the High Point organization, said their groups will get together again in the coming weeks to look at other successful school programs.

Melvin said the business executives also plan to meet with the three school boards in the county ``to see what we can do with them.'

Chuck Forrester, chairman of the Guilford County commissioners, joined the executives for the trip. He questioned Houlihan extensively about how CLASS will operate and how it will function, but said he will wait and see what the business groups propose for the three Guilford systems before making any commitment.

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