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Corporate eye on education

Fortune 500 companies support education initiatives that blend philanthropy and pragmatism
An AT&T employee volunteer, above left, helps a student in the Boys & Girls Clubs navigate a creative obstacle course to help motivate youth to be ready for successful transition into the upcoming school year.
An AT&T employee volunteer, above left, helps a student in the Boys & Girls Clubs navigate a creative obstacle course to help motivate youth to be ready for successful transition into the upcoming school year.

Some of the world’s most powerful companies are increasing their influence in K12 education by funding programs that blend workforce development with public service.

Corporate initiatives range from retail giant Target’s $1 billion plan to fund literacy programs—an initiative partially driven by customer support of education—to IBM’s high school STEM programs that aim to prepare the workers the company needs to fill its ranks.

“We’re attuned to the fact that we need a pipeline of skill and talent to work at IBM, and make sure we continue to push the envelope on innovation and research,” says Grace Suh, IBM manager for educational initiatives.

In other initiatives, the JPMorgan Chase Foundation has donated more than $230 million in the past five years to train teachers and redesign curriculum to help underserved students reach college. The GE Foundation, meanwhile, has invested more than $200 million since 2005 to implement college readiness programs and the Common Core in large urban districts located near General Electric sites in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Erie, Pa., Louisville, Milwaukee, New York City and Stamford, Conn.

Here is a roundup of some of the Fortune 500 companies that are donating money and resources to K12 schools in attempts to improve learning and prepare students for the nation’s future economic and business needs.

Redesigning high schools

IBM’s Pathways to Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) are public schools spanning grades nine through 12, and two years of community college. Students graduate from these schools with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computer information systems or electromechanical engineering technology—at no cost to the student. They can then get a job in the technology industry or continue their studies at a post-secondary institution.

The schools are publicly funded, and IBM and other corporate partners, including Samsung, provide mentors for every student and paid summer internships after junior year. “Our goal in our corporate citizenship efforts is to serve students who are historically underserved,” Suh says. “There is so much great, untapped talent around the world, and we need to open up opportunities to those young people who don’t have them.”

IBM also funds student internship salaries, an online mentoring platform, worksite visits and other projects at P-TECH schools, but Suh would not share an exact amount.

The first P-TECH school opened in Brooklyn in 2011, and has 335 students in grades nine through 11, most of whom are minorities and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Students are chosen via New York City’s public school lottery system, and can expect rigorous STEM courses and an extended school day and year. Another 16 schools are opening across New York state, and there are five in Chicago.

The curriculum is designed, in part, to match the STEM skills needed for entry-level jobs at IBM. Every graduating student will be granted an interview with IBM and considered for an appropriate entry-level position, Suh says.

Meeting workforce needs

The Ford Motor Company Fund has established the Ford Next Generation Learning program, which creates career academies within low-performing high schools. Students are taught skills that revolve around jobs needed in areas of the local economy, such as health care, hospitality and tourism, and engineering.

In 2012, the most recent year for which data was available, Ford spent about $8 million on education initiatives, part of which went toward the Next Generation Learning program. The academies have served more than 300,000 students in 27 states.

Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee created 43 academies within its 12 high schools after partnering with Ford in 2007. The district has received a $25,000 grant from Ford each year since. “You have to use the local workforce data to inform what you offer in school,” says Jay Steele, chief academic officer of Nashville schools. “It doesn’t make sense to offer something if it doesn’t lead to a degree or a job in our city.”

Since the program started, Nashville has seen a dramatic rise in graduation rates: In 2005, the five-year graduation rate was 58 percent. Last year, it was nearly 77 percent. The district has hit an all-time high of 93 percent daily attendance. Some 51 percent of students are now scoring proficient or advanced on Algebra I end-of-course assessments, compared to 29 percent four years ago, Steele says.

Increasing STEM instruction

Microsoft’s YouthSpark global initiative includes more than 30 programs designed to enhance instruction. In Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS), volunteer computer scientists train teachers to teach students to write code. TEALS is in 70 schools in 12 states this school year, and still growing.

Microsoft also announced in February that all U.S. K12 public schools can now purchase Windows-based tablets, laptops and devices for low prices that were previously only available for low-income schools. It is a response to President Barack Obama’s ConnectED plan to give 99 percent of U.S. schools high-speed internet and increased technology products within five years. Microsoft’s plan has the potential to save schools $1 billion this year alone, says Margo Day, vice president of U.S. education at Microsoft.

Literacy and graduation

Students who are not reading-proficient by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers, according to a 2011 study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged children in the United States. Target is on track to give $1 billion for education by the end of 2015, specifically focusing on literacy initiatives.

“Based on surveys, we know that our guests care about education more than any other social issue,” says Target spokesperson Sarah Van Nevel. “Our education initiatives are always evolving and developing to serve the needs of our guests and the communities where we do business.”

One initiative offers $2,000 grants to fund programs in schools, libraries and nonprofits that encourage students in pre-K through third grade to read. Schools can apply for the grants through April 30. The company also has renovated 175 school libraries since 2007 through the Target School Library Makeover program, which is operated in partnership with the Heart of America Foundation, a national nonprofit that promotes volunteer services and literacy.

AT&T’s philanthropic initiative, AT&T Aspire, launched in 2008 with a $350 million commitment to helping students who are at risk of dropping out stay in school and graduate. In 2012, the company launched a competitive request for proposal, which gave $10 million to national, regional and local organizations and nonprofits dedicated to this goal. Earlier this year they launched a second request for proposal. To win funding, organizations must submit student data that demonstrates the impact of their program on achievement or attendance.

AT&T fills some 25,000 jobs per year, and wants to create a pipeline of qualified employees, says Nicole Anderson, executive director of philanthropy at AT&T Aspire. The company spread the funds among 47 organizations in 2012, including five districts, several charter schools and three Boys & Girls Clubs. For the 2014 Aspire RFP, organizations can apply for up to $1 million if they serve multiple communities, and $300,000 for single communities.

Health and wellness

Healthy eating is another popular area for corporate giving. The Walmart Foundation has spent over $3 million on a program called Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom. Schools move traditional school breakfast programs to the classroom, and serve the meal after the first bell so all students—no matter their income level—can participate.

This prevents students from being labeled low-income—a stigma that causes them to want to skip federal breakfast programs, even if they are hungry, says Sandy Huisman, Des Moines Public Schools’ director of food and nutrition.

Partner organizations—such as the nonprofit School Nutrition Foundation and the National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation— help schools start the programs, in part, by bringing in nutrition experts to develop menus. Walmart provides funds for equipment, outreach efforts to parents, and program promotion. Fifteen districts, which generally have about 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, participate in the Breakfast in the Classroom program nationwide.

In Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, some 70 percent of the 31,500 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Walmart offered a one-time donation of $400,000 to the district to purchase equipment, including additional freezers and refrigerators for their kitchens. In addition, the district receives federal reimbursement to cover the rest of the costs. Des Moines implemented the program in 15 out of 54 schools in the 2012-13 year, and committed to participating over a three-year period.

Des Moines principals have reportedly seen fewer referrals due to behavioral problems at school, and nurses have seen fewer students in their office, Huisman says. More than 62 percent of third graders were proficient on state reading assessments in spring 2013, a small increase of more than 1 percent since spring 2012.

“Very hard work has been put into the classroom overall,” Huisman says, “but I like to believe Breakfast in the Classroom has contributed at least a little bit to the improved performance.”