By ALLISON DAVIS

At 11 a.m., Flynn Elementary Principal Charles Addcox was faced with the most important decision of the day: Hold recesses outside despite sporadic rain showers, or keep the kids indoors.
Brian Riley, managing director at Merrill Lynch and Flynn Elementary principal for a day, stepped in with sage advice:

“I don’t know about you but my kids need to run. I don’t want to know what it’s gonna be like this afternoon if you don’t let them burn off some energy,” he told Addcox.

Riley followed Addcox from early morning reading lessons to a PTA meeting to recess duty at the 450-student-body school at Flynn. It was all part of the Principal for a Day program sponsored by Merrill Lynch that puts leaders from the business world into public schools.

Principal for a day Brian Riley and his host, Principal Charles Addcox, learn the details of gardening.

Principal for a Day Brian Riley and his host, Principal Charles Addcox, learn the details of gardening.

During his time at Flynn, Riley mediated a conflict of playground politics between two young girls, learned how 1st and 2nd graders discover how plants grow, and saw firsthand several of the programs Flynn offers to improve literacy.

Principal for a Day, in its second year in San Francisco, is designed to build a relationship between the public and private sectors. Last year’s effort resulted in 30 partnerships, with business leaders supplying volunteers, programs and often financial support to schools in the San Francisco Unified district. Under an initiative by Mayor Gavin Newsom, the city hopes to have 100 C.E.O.s sponsor schools.

“You need both the public and the private sectors,” said Riley. “You need the financial investment and the commitment from the employees for things to work.”

That is especially true after last week’s budget-cut decision, said Jessica Pullano, communications manager at San Francisco School Volunteers.

Riley agreed, but acknowledged that with Wall Street having its worst year in decades—Merrill Lynch lost $27 billion last year and remains caught up in the bailout drama, according to The New York Times—the individual volunteers will play the largest part.

“We’re seeing major corporations reining in their financial commitments to nonprofit organizations, and yet at the same time a lot of individuals are stepping up to the plate under the headline of ‘Gosh, we need you now more than ever,’” Riley said.

Merrill Lynch sent 20 volunteers out into the schools Wednesday. They worked and they interviewed each principal in the district to compile a “wish list” from the schools. Flynn mainly requested volunteers for student initiatives and service projects such as gardening.

While it’s a chance for the private sector to flex their philanthropic muscles, it’s also a chance for schools to shine.

“Schools may not have the highest test scores, but what isn’t shown is all that’s right about public schools,” said Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

Riley, for example, gushed about the garden, the energetic kids and the abilities of Principal Addcox.

“Did you know that there wasn’t even a PTA when he first got here?” Riley asked, noting that the principal had set up an active, bilingual PTA group.

“When we host the private sector, we’re building a relationship,” said Addcox. “You never know when we’ll need each other. Things could happen and develop.”

“Even with all the doom and gloom, people still feel like they need to make a greater contribution. And if they can, they do,” said Riley.