For over 20 years I have been involved in some form or fashion with school-business partnerships. Much of it was as an individual volunteer, but some was as a project manager or coordinator of the effort. My first foray into the world of business-community partnerships was with an inner-city school in Jackson, Mississippi. My motivation was sparked by a newspaper article listing of fourth-grade scores in the state. The next to last elementary school on the list was within the shadows of the company that I worked for at the time. Could our company partner with the school and help improve scores?
After a meeting with the school principal it was obvious that she welcomed such a partnership. Two years later, scores had improved and several businesses and other community organizations were involved in the school. Before long the school became what was then known as a “Level 5” school. I was hooked.
Subsequently, I have been involved with a project to improve the college going rate in 13 schools, facilitated strategic planning retreats for some of the top school districts in the state, volunteered as an advisory board member at my local school district and spent time in the classroom as a volunteer reader or mentor. Here in no particular order are the top seven things that I have seen to be most effective in school-business partnerships.
1. An effective school employee designated by the principal who serves as liaison and coordinator with the businesses involved with the school. Too often, the school coordinator is someone laden with other
duties, and who has had little or no training in how to connect with local businesses. The school coordinator should be someone who knows the school’s needs and is able to effectively interact with business people. The school coordinator should be a “connector” who can match the business volunteers with the school’s needs.
2. The business champion is the person in the business, the chamber of commerce or even a retired business person who is passionate about including the business and its employees in school activities and opportunities. One of the best examples I’ve seen of such a person is B. Joe Hulin in DeKalb. He is affiliated with the Kemper County Economic Development Authority and founder/coordinator of PACES
(Parents and Community Equals Educational Success). His efforts have resulted in increased graduation rates, increased scholarships and more business involvement in the Kemper County School District.
3. Start over every year. Although businesses plan long term, schools start over every year. Although there may be multi-year goals and long-term outcomes, it should be remembered that there is a higher turnover of personnel in a school each year than there is in a business. Consequently, there should be a new planning and goal setting session every year to get everyone, especially new personnel, on board with the project.
4. A wide variety of volunteer opportunities should be available to the business and their employees. For some businesses, making a financial contribution may be all that is appropriate. For others there may be a desire to have dozens of volunteers participating in a wide variety of projects. One kiss of death for a school-business partnership is for the business representative to contact a school and be told that the school does not need any help.
5. Frequent publicity and good media relations are an important part of effort. Stories about success in the schools generate more interest and more volunteers. Be sure to include plenty of photographs of business volunteers and students and teachers together.
6. Stories should go with facts and photos. While it is true that outcomes such as graduation rates and improvements in test scores are newsworthy and should be reported, there is nothing like the story of
an individual student who overcame odds to earn a scholarship to a prestigious university.
7. There should be celebration of achievements. Awards Day at a school is exciting for students, parents and teachers. But don’t forget to celebrate the business involvement in the school and what volunteers have done throughout the year.
There are some terrific models around Mississippi that exemplify the above, and that can serve as resources for businesses that want to get involved with their local schools. Excel by 5, an initiative in
Pascagoula initially funded by Chevron, focuses on early childhood and provides a certification for communities around the state – see www.excelby5.com. In Corinth, the Chamber of Commerce division of the
The Alliance, coordinates volunteer opportunities for Chamber members who want to get involved with local schools – see chamber.corinthalliance.com. The Mississippi Association of Partners in Education provides a wealth of information for businesses about connecting with local schools – see www.mapie.org. Businesses that want to check out information on their local schools and children in their communities the definitive resource is Mississippi Kids Count – see kidscount.ssrc.msstate.edu.
Finally, for businesses who might wonder why they should get involved in their local schools, the response is simple: Today’s students are your tomorrow’s workforce.
Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist and owner of Hardwick & Associates, LLC, which provides strategic planning facilitation and leadership training services. His email is phil@philhardwick. com and he’s on the web at www.philhardwick.com.
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