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Classroom Catwalk

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By Paula Harris

WHEN JULIE, a 15-year-old Petaluma High School student, showed up for her regular PE class recently she wasn't expecting an hourlong pitch by a pushy San Francisco modeling agency. But that's exactly what she and her friends got.

Julie says students in her class (which includes just one male) were told they'd be having a presentation, but didn't find out two representatives from Barbizon Modeling School and Agency would be giving it until the class started.

According to students, what followed was a lecture ostensibly about eating disorders, but with plenty of business hype thrown in. "[The presenters] talked a lot about Barbizon. They used their slogan, 'Be a model or just look like one' a lot,"

According to students, what followed was a lecture ostensibly about eating disorders, but with plenty of business hype thrown in. "[The presenters] talked a lot about Barbizon. They used their slogan 'Be a model or just look like one' a lot," says Julie, who signed with the agency last year but soon grew disenchanted. "They were definitely plugging the school."

She says students were asked to fill out forms for a drawing to win a scholarship for an expensive Barbizon modeling course. "The presenters did a good job of sucking you into it," she adds. "Some girls were star-struck and a few said they were going to call the agency."

Tracy George, a Barbizon lecturer, says the agency has been operating in schools for years. "We do have a commercialized part that we talk about in the class, but we believe in developing the whole person, and we also talk about how students can improve themselves," she says.

Barbizon representatives call on schools and try to book presentations that cater to specific classes. The agency doesn't charge schools to come in, but makes its profit from student response after the presentation.

"The response is usually a pretty good turnaround," says George, adding that she's being booked daily to talk in schools around the Bay Area and beyond.

IN FACT, demand is so high, according to George, that Barbizon needs more high school lecturers. She even tries to persuade a reporter to get in on the act. "You could earn $12 per hour, plus mileage and up to $100 per day based on how many leads you bring in," she coaxes.

Andrew Hagelshaw of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education says he's not surprised to hear about Barbizon's tactics. "Everyone who has something to advertise wants to be in schools right now," he observes. "Schools provide a captive audience and kids have no choice but to listen. The schools need to think the whole process through and consider what messages are being sent to young impressionable people."

He adds that schools in San Francisco and Berkeley have anti-commercialism policies in place and schools in Marin are considering adopting them.

Steve Collins, Petaluma City School District assistant superintendent in charge of instruction, says the district has a policy against companies securing names of students or transacting private business on campus. "We do have guest speakers, not to talk about products but rather career opportunities," he says.

"Companies aren't there to use the school as a commercial springboard."

Still, both junior high schools in the district--Kenilworth and Petaluma junior high schools--this year installed the controversial ZapMe! computer system in their classrooms, which spoon-feeds students a steady diet of advertising in exchange for free hookup to the Internet.


Julie's real name has been changed.

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From the December 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




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