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Business boost for education

Partnerships with schools bring real-life relevance to classrooms
  • At Banneker High School in Georgia, a student in the JA-MBA program, right, presents his case study at Chick-fil-A headquarters, one of many businesses that students visit.
  • At Pearl City Elementary School in Hawaii, students and teachers participate in the “maile lei” untying to mark the finish of a project where one of the first PV canopies was constructed. It served as a kick-off event for the Ka Hei construction statewide.
  • An “innovation labs” at Collier County Schools in Florida. The district is spending more than $18,000 to convert a business classroom in each high school into a creative space with black conference tables, high-tech screens and bold colors.

At Banneker High School in College Park, Georgia, dedicating a wing of six classrooms, an office and a conference room to just 139 ninth graders and their six teachers is an exercise in innovation.

The wing is the foundation of a Junior Achievement (JA) pilot program called JA Magnet Business Academy, JA-MBA. Junior Achievement is a nonprofit dedicated to building workforce readiness and financial literacy, with school-based and after-school programs nationwide.

JA-MBA was created to integrate real-world exposure to business, marketing and financial literacy with core subjects. Last year, Banneker was the lowest performing of Fulton County Schools’ 17 high schools. Under the former superintendent, Robert Avossa, the district had a successful partnership with JA of Georgia running after-school business education programs in the metro Atlanta area. JA-MBA at Banneker soon followed.

JA-MBA at Banneker will add a grade and up to 150 students each year, with the current ninth-graders matriculating to a grade 10 curriculum and new ninth-graders recruited.

Collaborations between businesses and districts, such as JA-MBA, run deeper than internships or volunteer tutors. Business representatives help districts create curriculum and train teachers. They also volunteer as coaches and mentors, while teachers and school staff receive PD and support, and students gain college and career readiness skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and technology know-how.

As technology and scientific advances bring the world closer and make it more competitive, districts and businesses recognize the success of collaboration, says Callie Majors, director of marketing and development for JA of Georgia.

How it works

In Fulton County, La Novia Meuse, vice president of programs for JA of Georgia, arranges student trips to companies such as Chick-Fil-A, Georgia Power and AT&T—major employers. She also gathers real-life case studies for students and teachers to work through, and recruits mentors who meet monthly during the school day with groups of 25 students. Funding comes primarily from the corporations involved in the program, says Majors.

Meuse and Ava Debro, assistant principal who oversees JA-MBA, hand-pick the teachers from the general teaching pool of applicants, and ensure they welcome the unique teaching environment. Fulton County pays for the teachers, textbooks and curriculum materials.

Debro and Meuse meet the teachers at least weekly to ensure case studies and core curriculum are integrated. For example, the Chick-fil-A case study involved JA-MBA students creating a new customer experience, comparing and contrasting customer service and loyalty in the 20th and 21st centuries. They developed effective workplace communication.

Students also visited the company and learned that Chick-Fil-A is not just about serving fast-food, but has professional jobs in marketing, human resources and finance.

Creating a pipeline

Further south in Florida, Collier County Schools has one of the largest migrant populations in the state. And about 67 percent of its 45,000 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.

The county is home to a thriving community of entrepreneurs, which can offer students expertise training, says Superintendent Kamela Patton. An advisory board of entrepreneurs, community members and school representatives, and faculty from Florida Gulf Coast University’s business school, helped Patton build lessons on entrepreneurship and business literacy. Teachers learned basic business concepts from small business leaders.

In 2013, Patton launched a districtwide entrepreneur elective in its eight high schools. Juniors and seniors learn skills, such as interviewing and public speaking, from volunteer mentors from business. Students also interact via videoconference with a business person. Past speakers include a vice president at BB&T Bank; a marketing and communications strategist and a director of litigation at a national law firm.

At the end of the school year, students compete for the most well-conceived business plan.

Students can request up to $500 for their team to either create a prototype or document how the concept can become a business in the future, says Jennifer Weimer, a spokesperson for Collier County. “The purpose of our course is not to create business; it is to provide the opportunity for students to go through the entrepreneurship process,” she says. Some teams have developed plans that can be implemented and possibly become viable businesses in the future.

Last year, students from Gulf Coast High School won a team competition to sell and trade high-end limited edition sneakers. Students from Barron Collier High School won the class competition for the idea to set up a coffee bar for students who arrive early at school.

After piecing together a business curriculum, Superintendent Patton learned of INCubatoredu, a nonprofit organization that offers an online business-led curriculum for high school students. Teachers can follow “skeleton” lesson plans, such as creating an idea for a business plan, and local coaches and mentors work with them to deliver each lesson, says Patton.

In addition, Collier County is spending about $18,400 to convert a classroom in each high school into what Patton calls an “innovation lab.” Black conference tables, high-tech screens, and bold and colorful inspirational quotes on the walls transform the business classes into true creative spaces, Patton says. The decor signals to students they are in a unique environment. “The kids know they’re special,” she says.

The district plans at least three fundraisers specific to the entrepreneur program, hoping to create an endowment. And Patton hopes to create scholarships for Collier County students study business at local colleges, with the goal of building their own businesses locally. “We know we will create economic development,” Patton says, “so the students can reinvest right back into their own community.”

Sustainability and STEM

In the south Pacific, students learn about energy. The Hawaii Department of Education wants to lower energy costs, improve sustainability and bring real-world STEM lessons to students in its 256 school campuses with Ka Hei.

Ka Hei is a five-year partnership with OpTerra Energy Services and a K12 educational media company, Defined Learning. The partnership involves OpTerra installing and operating renewable and sustainable energy systems at several schools. In turn, the education department pays for energy the systems produce, says Brent Suyama, education department spokesman.

Leaders from the department and OpTerra regularly discuss the status of each project and any problems to resolve.

“Any time you’re talking about large organizations and government, there’s that stereotype of things being very slow- moving, not getting where you need to go as fast as you like,” Suyama says.

The other element is the energy/ sustainability curriculum, administered by Defined Learning. Getting a license for five years of the online curriculum Defined STEM (a division of Defined Learning) for all schools is incorporated into the power purchase agreement, says Joel Jacobson, chief operating officer and co-founder of Defined Learning.

Through Defined STEM, teachers have online access to lesson plans and project ideas, and can participate in video seminars and other PD. Hawaii teachers who participate in Defined STEM can log on anytime for technical assistance. Each lesson plan also includes real-world videos of STEM careers, offering students tangible examples of how skills are used.

In North Carolina, a similar STEM program is gaining steam. Over the past six years, 11 superintendents and more than two dozen corporations, nonprofit organizations, community colleges and universities have formed the Eastern North Carolina Employers and Superintendents Council, which oversees the nonprofit workforce development organization STEM East.

Its purpose: to bring teachers, starting as early as middle school, together with local employers to assess where jobs are in the region and to help align the curriculum with the necessary skills to do those jobs, says Steve Hill, executive director of STEM East.

For example, teachers may identify middle school students interested in aerospace engineering, and can, with help from business leaders from Spirit Aerosystems, lead them along the track to taking the proper courses to eventually work. “We want these kids to graduate with the right education, the right credit and the right skills they need to do the jobs in the region,” he says. “These people control the jobs. They control the future. They need to be talking to each other.”

Introducing manufacturing

Exposure is a goal of the Alcoa Foundation’s Manufacture Your Future initiative. It includes virtual field trips, lesson plans and teacher guides to introduce students to the manufacturing industry, says Suzanne Van de Raadt, a spokesperson for Alcoa’s nonprofit foundation. The goal is to provide a better understanding of manufacturing.

In October 2014 and 2015, the foundation partnered with Discovery Education to offer free online behind-the-scenes tours in Alcoa’s manufacturing facilities in Iowa and Michigan.

The Manufacture Your Future curriculum focuses on characteristics of the manufacturing industry as a whole, says Van de Raadt. “There is an outdated notion of what the industry is about—that it might be scary or unsafe,” says Van de Raadt, speaking of misconceptions that workers are frequently injured or work with dangerous machines.

Taking students through the inner workings of the plant in a virtual field trip helps them visualize the abstract ideas of what their future might hold and alleviate any fears they might have, she adds.

“We’ve been doing education the same way, but the way we live at home is different [from previous generations] and the way we do our jobs is different,” says Callie Majors of JA of Georgia. “Something has to change in education.”

Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.