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From the Ground Up

“Mr. Hardwick, remember me? We were in second grade together.”

Yes, I remembered him well. Two years earlier he had been part of the second grade class at Poindexter Elementary School, a place of learning located in a Jackson neighborhood that had seen better days.

It was then and there that the Leadership Jackson Alumni Association began a three-year service project. The idea was that we volunteers would spend three consecutive years with the same students and find out if this type of community involvement really made a difference in test scores when the second-graders reached fourth grade. Four years have now gone by and I will take this forum to share several things that I learned from the experience, the idea being that your business just might want to get involved with a local school.

First, volunteers have diverse needs, talents and resources. Therefore, offer a variety of ways for volunteers to participate. Some will want to read to students, some will want to collect items and deliver them to the school, some will want to make a financial contribution, and some will want to deal with family issues. Keep all volunteer activities on the school site or an approved, multi-chaperoned field trips. The safety issues, both physical and emotional, are paramount. If volunteers desire to meet with families, have them do so at the school, not in the home.

Second, invite other organizations to join the effort. At Poindexter Elementary, numerous organizations, including WLBT-TV, the mayor`s office and city agencies, the Junior League of Jackson, St. Andrew`s Middle School and other organizations and individuals were part of the school`s adopters and volunteers. Each contributed its own special expertise. For example, the Junior League had a fantastic after school program; St. Andrew`s Middle School students teamed with Poindexter elementary school students to learn math together.

Third, expect the unexpected. Little did I know that the biggest cause of fights would be related to clothes. Some kids wore the same clothes several days in a row and got teased about it. Others wore hand-me-downs that did not fit very well. Others wore the latest fashion. Solution – work with the principal to change the school to uniform-optional and provide uniforms to the students.

Speaking of the unexpected, how would you like to be a teacher about to be evaluated on your students’ test scores – that teacher accountability thing we all love so much – and four students from another city who are being transferred to a local foster home are assigned to your class the week of the test? Getting involved in your local school will change your attitude about public education.

Fourth, support the teacher and the principal. One of the little things we did – or so we thought – was take the principal and teacher to lunch from time to time. One day the teacher told me that it was one of the things that they cherished most. She reminded me that teachers spend their days talking with children. Talking to adults was a refreshing change of pace. Likewise, the principal needs your support. We learned that a good principal is the real key to a good school.

Fifth, make it a one-year project. We started in the second grade, in which there were three classes totaling 43 students. At the end of the fourth grade only 12 of the original second graders remained. Also, the students who attended Poindexter in a previous year had better test scores than those who did not. I did a little research on the neighborhood and, using census data, found that there was an approximate 30% annual turnover rate in households.

Sixth, community involvement works. Test scores were up in the class. When they were third-graders, the mainstream students had a 100% pass rate on the exit exam, one of only two Jackson elementary schools to do so. In the fourth grade, the original group had better test scores than the newer students, and they had better scores than the fourth grade class two years earlier.

Finally, it was rewarding to see the joy and the satisfaction of a job well done by the volunteers. I`ll bet they became better employees too. At the very least, they came to know a lot more about their community and its educational system.

If you would like to see your employees have a similar experience, seek out your local Adopt-A-School program. Your company, employees and community will be better for it. Oh – and so will you and the kids.

Phil Hardwick`s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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