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Business Partnerships: Common and Crucial

Technology companies can make great partners--not just providers. Here's how to create and maintain collaborations that produce long-term benefits for all

For an employee at a mobile communications giant, one of Susan Cornell's biggest challenges these days is surprisingly low-tech. And it concerns 2,000 pounds of clay. Or more specifically, how to get that clay, which is packed in more than a few 20-pound boxes, in the hands of eighth graders at five middle schools in nearby Poway (Calif.) Unified School District.

One lab activity from the district's new wireless technology science curriculum, developed jointly by Poway educators and Nokia engineers, has students building mobile phone models out of the clay, explains Cornell, who is community relations/employee services manager at the company's San Diego Product Creation Center. With earlier lessons bringing students up to speed on the wireless industry and on the various components of phones, students are ready for the hands-on task.

The wireless curriculum is just the latest development in a long-term partnership between Nokia and the district. Three years ago, when Nokia's new facility increased its presence in the region, requests for funding from students, PTAs, teachers and administrators in the 42 local school districts started to increase significantly, Cornell says. "It was tough for us to filter those requests to see who needs funding the most." Poway's Partners in Education Office provided the assistance Nokia needed.

Soon after, the number of requests for classroom visits had also grown beyond the company's means. Nokia wanted to help, but its engineers were needed on site for business operations, Cornell explains. That's when teachers suggested they work together to create a science curriculum. Close to two years later, the results of that collaboration are now hitting the classroom.

Nokia is one of 19 companies on Poway's High School to High Tech Council, which aims to help prepare students for information technology careers. In all, Poway has 100 official business partnerships, about half involving technology, says Irene S. Frank, director of the Partners in Education/ Youth Programs office. The best partnerships, she adds, benefit both parties.

It's a lesson that a growing number of administrators are learning as collaborations between districts and tech companies become both more common and more crucial today. "If education is going to improve, it's critical for education, business and government to work together," says Susan Jeannero, senior manager of marketing for Cisco Systems.

In the mid-'90s, when the company was first creating its Cisco Networking Academy Program for high schools, partnerships generally meant equipment donations. Developing the curriculum with educators was an eye-opener, Jeannero says, about the power of public/private partnerships.

Motivation for Innovation

Preparing the future work force for technology careers is a big motivator for companies investing more in K-12 today, says Robin Willner, director of corporate community relations for IBM. "Sometimes people think it's just about backing up the truck and 'Here's 30 ThinkPads.' I think that educators are sometimes surprised to find the degree to which people in companies are really idealists. We're in this to help kids learn." Through IBM's Reinventing Education grant program, researchers and consultants work closely with school partners to develop and implement solutions to education problems.

"I think that educators are sometimes surprised to find the degree to which people in companies are really idealists. We're in this to help kids learn." -Robin Willner, IBM

"There's a strong desire to raise the skill level of the outcoming graduate," says Pat Konopnicki, director of technical and career education for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. And it's not just technical job skills that concern companies, he adds. Students can gain an understanding of work ethic, teamwork and other "soft skills" through guest speaker events, mentor programs and internships arranged with partners.

Virginia Beach has about 1,300 corporate partnerships (15 to 20 percent that are tech-related, Konopnicki says). The new $22.5 million-dollar Advanced Technology Center, a partnership between the district, a community college and the city that offers secondary and post-secondary technical training, has 16 corporate partners to date. While forming and sustaining partnerships takes district time and effort, company experts and administrators agree that the resulting long-term bonds are worth it.

"True partners look at the partnership from a strategic standpoint--not just a three-month partnership and then you have to track [each other] down," says Nassir Azimi, chief information officer for San Francisco Unified School District, which has partnered with IBM through its grant program to create customized online tools.

Frank credits Poway's partnerships for helping the district keep pace with technology. When Poway hosted a National School Boards Association Education Technology Site Visit in May, she says that corporate partners such as Novell, which set up a Web broadcast of U.S. Director of Educational Technology John Bailey's speech, made it possible for the district to participate.

For school systems like Poway and Virginia Beach that have established a reputation for pursuing partnerships that thrive, getting new companies on board is relatively easy. "Most of them come to us now," Frank says.

Virginia Beach has organized a team of business executives called Success Express to help raise funds and find new partners for the Advanced Technology Center. "They have really pushed to have involvement from the community," says Bob Michie, a Cisco sales account manager. While he supports Cisco Networking Academies in 11 districts, Michie spends the most time in Virginia Beach. "I have stepped up to the plate when asked to get involved," he says.

For districts just beginning to navigate technology partnerships--or those ready to take the process to a higher level--it helps to understand the rules of the road.

Destination Unknown: Approaching Partners

There's agreement all around. "As educators we need to... find out more about what we can do to help enhance the company--not sit there and be the poor cousin down the block who says, 'I need some more money, please,' " says Paul Robinson, assistant principal of Poway's Rancho Bernardo High School.

He's referring to the district's Gateway partnership program, which trains students for A+ Certification and then allows them to help out in school tech departments. In turn, Gateway can use the program's computer labs to offer training for the public. But Robinson may as well be talking about any technology partnership in School District U.S.A.

In Virginia Beach, partners can use the technology center's theater or labs, or even have a classroom named after the company. IBM's Willner says that a partnership is "like a marriage. Everybody gives and everybody gets."

That's why choosing the right partner is essential. But be realistic about what the district may get from partners, Frank advises, since "many companies are feeling the same economic belt tightening that districts are going through." Cornell from Nokia adds says administrators should "understand that a business is also just trying to survive." Other tips for approaching potential partners:

? Determine Your Objective “Don’t worry about the technology part,” says Willner. “Think about the education issue that you want to address.” Then approach a company with: “Here’s something that really matters to us. Can you work with us to make a difference for kids?”

“A lot of times when we have schools say they want to partner with us, they mean they want to get something at low cost or free,” says Tom Ferrio, vice president of educational and productivity solutions at Texas Instruments. And that objective is fine with him, as long as the district is straightforward about it.

However, as far as true partnerships go, Jeannero says, “we found out pretty quickly that the successful [Cisco Academy] schools are not the ones just there for free equipment.”

? Make Sure You Meet Each Others’ Needs “I expect someone that’s accessible, who will listen and who will share in the implementation of any project, and who will be on call when you need them,” says Kaye Stripling, superintendent of Houston Independent School District. That’s what she has found in her contacts at IBM, which partnered with the district on a Reinventing Education grant to co-develop reading solutions. “I can tell by the way they look, the way they act, that they are vested and they really truly care that the children are learning to read.” Experts agree that a company point person is essential.

Poway’s Partners in Education office meets individually with any business interested in coming on board to develop a plan based on mutual interests, Frank says.

? Look Beyond Your Own Backyard While tech companies within the community have a vested interest in the local education, they’re not the only potential mates. In fact, says Ferrio, TI likes to link up with districts in places they know less about.

? Recognize Red Flags When a company constantly refers to its financial woes, it’s a sign of a potential partnership flop, Frank has learned. With companies that claim to be “in transition,” she suggests checking back in a few months, when a corporate restructuring or other changes may be settled. Konopnicki also leaves the door open for companies currently unable to get involved with the district. Six months later, that group may be able to help.

San Francisco’s CIO says the reaction to his requesting a dedicated project management team reveals whether a partnership will work. “A number of entities speak the partnership language and they ante up some of the products and resources,” Azimi says. But when the discussion turns to project management, most shy away. “Nine out of 10 of them are interested in just getting their name on the board.”

Speed Check Maintaining Partnerships

Project managers are just as important within school system lines. “It takes a lot of time to follow through and nurture partnership relationships,” Frank says. When a point person is assigned, she says, “It’s important that [he or she] be kept in the information loop about district needs, especially related to technology.” You can’t ask for corporate assistance if you’re not aware of a need.

Other tips for maintaining partnership communication:

? Set Expectations For Regular Updates Whether it’s a monthly conference or a daily call, agreeing in advance about how often you’ll communicate with your contact helps ward off surprises or disappointments, says TI Marketing Manager Tysun McKay.

? Speak Up When the Cisco Academy program was launched, Jeannero says the company intended to continually update the curriculum so that students would always have the latest skills and information. “Schools were saying, ‘Wait, we can’t adapt that quickly!’” she remembers. Now changes aren’t made more often than every six months.

Honesty also pays off when a district finds itself with budget restrictions threatening a partnership program. “I’m pretty immersed in my job here and I don’t have any kids,” says Cornell, of Nokia. “I don’t always know what’s happening on the state level as far as funding unless I happen to see it in the news.” While the company may not have a quick fix, it might allocate more time or resources to keep the partnership going.

? Establish Multiple Partnership Tiers This allows for flexibility when partners sign on, as well as the option to honor companies most committed to working with the district. For example, Poway has Participating Partners (supporters of a specific school, program or department), Associate Partners (district-wide supporters) and the High School to High Tech Council (which as a group helps to shape district plans).

Virginia Beach, meanwhile, has established an ATC Advisory Council to help determine what direction center programs should take to best prepare students for the future. Invited participants are Success Express fundraising leaders and major corporate contributors, Konopnicki says.

Thanks in part to the city’s economic development council, the ATC Advisory Council will continue to expand. When a city strategic plan was established three years ago, the ATC was placed at the center of its marketing efforts, he says. This ensures an ongoing dialogue between the city and potential district partners.

“Your glass is always half full when you embrace the best of the future,” Konopnicki says. “Having industry-certified programs involving business partners to elevate [student] opportunities and subscribe national standards for [technology] program improvement is the only way to go. It is our future.”

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.