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Facing cuts? Ask a local business for help

Schools find private-sector support during tough economic times
In the Napa Valley Vintner’s Adopt-a-School program, Vineyard 29’s owner, Chuck McMinn, takes part in West Park Elementary School’s Jog-a-thon last October. Vineyard 29 sponsors each student in their runs.
In the Napa Valley Vintner’s Adopt-a-School program, Vineyard 29’s owner, Chuck McMinn, takes part in West Park Elementary School’s Jog-a-thon last October. Vineyard 29 sponsors each student in their runs.

Superintendent Barbara Nemko of the Napa County Office of Education in California approached the Napa Valley Vintners Association about a decade ago to see if its members would participate in an adopt-a-school program. The vintners, a logical partner as the region’s key employers, were receptive.

Winery owners and school principals arranged for employees to tutor elementary school students, organized field trips to wineries, and hosted wine-and-cheese receptions for teachers. “We left it up to them,” Nemko says. “That worked out pretty well over the years.”

Thanks to the partnership, student have improved in reading, learned about careers in the wine industry, and gained new adult mentors, she says. Rewards for vintners have included “the fact that a child’s eyes light up when you come into the room, and you feel like you’re making a difference for somebody,” she says.

The receptions for teachers are meant to show appreciation or, in some cases, provide professional development.

About three years ago, Nemko ramped up the effort by forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Napa Learns, which allowed the wineries to support the schools financially. The vintners agreed to pool $1 million a year and picked early childhood education as their first strategic initiative after the district shared research on how critical those years are to a child’s brain development and to getting on track educationally, she says.

All of this has brought benefits that go beyond cash or even in-kind contributions. “Seventy percent of the population does not have children in the schools today,” she says. “If we want to get people to support what we’re doing, they have to see what we’re doing. Otherwise, people think schools are failing because schools are not meeting the unrealistic expectations of politicians that 100 percent of students will meet or exceed [testing] standards by 2014.”

Career preparation

As districts work to cope with budget cuts, businesses across the U.S. are bringing services like health clinics, tutoring, and job-interview preparation into K12 schools.

Businesses are also being invited to participate in School Improvement Teams (SIT), which provide them a glimpse into how schools operate, says Donna Snyder, manager of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. “Schools are beginning to reach out to their local communities to support some of those things they need to move forward,” Snyder says.

Sometimes, district leaders shy away from asking for help because they’re concerned that potential partners have also suffered substantial budgets cuts. But often, the only cost to business is the price of an employee’s time away from the workplace, Snyder says. “Sometimes, all a student needs is additional adults above and beyond their parents to take an interest in them,” she says. “Once the community gets involved in the school, the school flourishes more so than on its own.”

Larger third parties sometimes help to broker these arrangements. The 31-year-old National Academy Foundation, which has 600 academies based in 178 districts (mostly in large cities), helps to promote partnerships between educators and business people in five career areas: hospitality, information technology, engineering, health sciences, and financial services.

Each academy has an advisory board with local business people who work to develop internships, mentorships, and job-shadowing opportunities, says Colleen Devery, NAF’s assistant vice president. “We work with folks in each industry as we develop curriculum, so it’s really rooted in what’s happening in that industry,” she says.

Businesses are concerned about what they see as a growing skills gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Devery says. “It’s a real opportunity for educators who are interested in bringing the business community into their classrooms,” she says. Doing so gives students a better sense of how their education will apply to and be relevant in the business world, Devery adds.

Participants in NAF programs are evaluated by end-of-course exams and final projects. They are given an internship assessment that measures skills like listening, observation, critical thinking, oral and written communication, and quantitative reasoning. The assessment also checks for workplace skills like collaboration, ethical behavior, adaptability, and self-management, says Dana Pungello, NAF communications manager.

Making partnerships work

To forge meaningful partnerships, both sides need to recognize their cultural differences, Devery says. For example, business workers might be at their desk responding to email all day, but a teacher typically is not and might take longer to respond than expected. “It’s important for both groups to understand the pressures each other is facing, and the way each other goes about their business, and try to bridge that divide,” she says.

Oklahoma City Public Schools in 2011 launched Career Academies in its high schools under NAF’s umbrella. Each has a 15- to 30-person advisory board comprising business and community leaders, representatives of higher education, school faculty, and parents. Students’ experiences culminate with a six-week, paid internship, usually during the summer before their senior year, says Verna Martin, associate director of secondary schools and reform.

Board members mentor the students. For example, students in the engineering academy participate in robotics competitions, and “these advisory board members spend numerous hours helping them design their entries,” Martin says.

The Oklahoma district solicits businesses to partner with the career academies through an annual recruitment symposium, inviting hundreds of employers from different fields. “For the employer, you can get an opportunity to get to know the student, and these are potential future employees,” Martin says. “It brings a satisfaction to the workplace; [business] people love to feel they’ve given back in some ways.”

And employers can have a meaningful impact on students’ skills and attitudes, Martin says.

“They’re constantly saying, ‘Kids are not prepared when they come to us.’ Now’s your opportunity to help.”

The Detroit Public Schools Volunteer Business Corps was organized about two years ago to facilitate partnerships, says Steven Wasko, assistant superintendent of community relations. “The limitations of the old model were that, in many cases, a local business may have some interest in supporting a school, but it may be too much on the business’ terms,” he says.

The Business Corps has catalogued 200 partnerships at about 100 schools, ranging from local affiliates of national corporations to mom-and-pop shops. Sometimes, money is a major focus: For example, automotive supplier Lear Corporation made a $1.5 million commitment to fund an “innovative” program on the east side of Detroit in which high school students tutor elementary- and middle-schoolers, Wasko says.

Aimed at students from East English Village Preparatory Academy high school and neighboring J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy (of which Lear CEO Matt Simoncini is an alum), the program has brought retrofitted computer labs and financial literacy training for students and their families. Wasko says the most innovative aspect is that the students are paid for their services, which hopefully prompts them to view it as a “professional responsibility” and teaches them workplace skills like being on time.

In other cases, companies help bring resources from third parties, such as public agencies. For example, JP Morgan Chase has worked with four schools in southwest Detroit to help them become community centers that house family and local service agencies. At various times, state of Michigan social workers are located at the sites, and the community centers include an adult-education program.

Detroit plans to close 28 schools by 2016. The Business Corps tries to set up partnerships that can survive when a heavily-involved principal leaves or a school closes. Proactive communication can help business partners feel as though they’ve been kept in the loop and help keep them on board during the transition, Wasko says.

“What breaks successful partnerships is not attending to the partner in a time of transition,” he says. For a businessperson who’s been partnering with a school to read about such transitions in the newspaper “is not the way we want to handle those things.”

Give and take in writing

The Anchorage School District and Chamber of Commerce have been forging partnerships for the last 23 years through an organization called The School-Business Partnership. Today, nearly 500 businesses and nonprofits have about 650 different partnership agreements with one or more schools.

Cheri Spink, executive director, emphasizes that the partnership agreement should spell out each side’s responsibilities clearly. “It’s not just, ‘You have to give us things,’ ” she says. “We emphasize to schools, have in your agreement what your school is going to do for that business. It can be as simple as giving the business space at an open house, or children displaying artwork at the business. It shows in good faith that they’re trying to be a partner.”

The central office of The School-Business Partnership, which brings in about $3 million in financial and in-kind donations, leads the partnership efforts but does not control them, Spink says. “Every partnership is a custom agreement,” she says. “Some [businesses] have resources in terms of supplies, some have resources in terms of time, some want to support the school their child is in.”

The program also mitigates budget cuts that have resulted in the layoffs of guidance counselors, Spink says. “I see our program becoming more and more important in helping guide students into careers and preparing them to go out into the workforce,” she says.

Sometimes, partnerships need to be rethought midstream. For example, sandwich-maker Subway of Alaska began a districtwide incentive program that provided coupons to teachers to reward student achievement. But the coupons were stashed in teachers’ drawers, then used all at once at the end of the school year for a class lunch, Spink says.

“That was never the intent of the program,” says Chris Wilson, vice president of Subway of Alaska, which had scaled back from a 64-school commitment to a partnership with three schools. By working with fewer schools, Subway can see its impact more clearly and get to know the players at each school, where company employees provide services like career mentorship, he says.

In turn, Subway gets recognized in school newsletters or at PTA events, Wilson says. “It’s really give-and-take,” he says. “It’s important as a partner that you literally sit down with the school and talk about their goals, and how your organization can best provide support for them.”

What the future holds

Snyder of ASCD forecasts continued and increasing business support for schools. “The schools are going to need it. And it’s the only way businesses are going to be able to influence school programming—to help the students of today be ready for the jobs of three to five years from now,” she says.

“It’s something we see growing as companies and industries are thinking about what they need to do to cultivate the next generation of customers and employees,” Devery adds. She sees a “real convergence” between the business community’s focus on filling critical gaps in skills and schools’ “emphasis on college- and career-readiness.”

District leaders across the country are figuring out the small steps needed to get partnerships moving and then sharing those with one another, Snyder says.

“What we need to do … is document it more formally,” she says. “We could use a how-to book, like, ‘Community and School Partnerships for Dummies.’ People just don’t know, and they’re afraid to ask. It’s simple, and we make it more complicated than it is.”

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Illinois.