• U.S.

Education: Joining Forces

6 minute read
Megan Rutherford

Six years ago, Public School 190 in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City found itself in a quandary. “The school was small, the parent body was ambitious, and we didn’t have any money,” recalls Debrah Pearson Feinn, whose daughter Lily was a second-grader at the time. The arts budget had been cut, and in this neighborhood, thick with artists, a school without art was hardly a school at all. Brainstorming at a back-to-school party, parents came up with the solution: since the area was gaining a reputation not only as an artists’ colony but also as a dining destination, P.S. 190 parents joined those in P.S. 234, another local elementary school, and formed a partnership with upscale neighborhood restaurateurs and caterers to launch Taste of Tribeca. The outdoor fancy-food festival now draws 3,000 people, who buy tickets to sample the signature dishes of more than three dozen local eateries. By showcasing the talents of neighborhood chefs, the annual one-day event raises some $50,000 a year for arts programs at the two schools. “It’s a wonderful model for everyone, including the kids, for how to do things in life,” says Taste of Tribeca co-founder Feinn. “Everybody is motivated by self-interest and also by the greater good. When you give this way, what you’re getting from the giving is much greater.”

That sentiment echoes throughout the country these days as businesses and schools scramble to forge alliances to raise student performance and enhance school curriculums eviscerated by budget cuts. Typically, businesses have as much to gain from the alliances as schools do. “Good schools benefit businesses because they attract good potential employees to move into the community,” says Carole Kennedy, principal in residence at the U.S. Department of Education. “Schools are one of the first things people check when they’re considering a move.” Notes Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals: “When a company reaches out and makes an effort to help young people, that sends a message to its employees that it is a good place to work.” No wonder, then, that the number of such relationships has surged–from 125,000 in 1991 to an estimated 400,000 today, according to Daniel Merenda, president and CEO of the National Association of Partners in Education.

As the number of partnerships has proliferated, so has the variety. Corporate giants may get the press coverage, but it’s small businesses that are leading the charge. In San Jose, Calif., the Graystone Elementary School has joined with Hicklebee’s, a local children’s bookstore, to hold readings by authors from Lynne Reid Banks (Indian in the Cupboard) to J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). Graystone students display school projects in Hicklebee’s windows, which draw their families to the bookstore. In Toms River, N.J., the staff of Silver Bay Elementary School gets behind the counter of the Yellow Brick Road ice-cream store one evening every spring and fall to serve up an ice-cream social for the students and their parents. The semiannual event raises money for the school, boosts morale and polishes the ice-cream parlor’s public image.

Far to the north in rural western Maine, the Sugarloaf/USA resort gives ski lessons to students in the first through eighth grades of nearby Stratton K-8 public school. For Stratton’s middle-school students, the resort offers golf lessons and environmental field trips and provides opportunities for job-shadowing and work-study. “It makes education more relevant when children can have a hands-on experience outside the classroom,” says Stratton principal Lorrie Arruda.

Sugarloaf encourages its employees to mentor, on company time, teenagers at Mount Abram High School. District career coordinator Gary Perlson, who oversees the mentoring program, attests to its effectiveness. Says he: “In the class of 2000, 30% graduated with mentors, and of those, 98% went on to the military or postsecondary education. Before we began the mentoring program three years ago, the figure for the graduating class was often as low as 45%.” As the biggest business in the area, Sugarloaf has a stake in the students. Many are the children of staff members, and all are potential customers or employees. Then there’s the intangible emotional factor. “It just feels good doing it,” says Sugarloaf managing director John Diller, who participates in the mentoring program and says he has got so much out of his relationship with a Mount Abram junior that “sometimes I wonder who’s the mentee and who’s the mentor.”

That’s the key. “Partnership is not about schools working with businesses or with agencies. Partnership is about relationships, it’s about people working with people,” says Daniel Merenda. That’s truer now than ever. “Schools used to look for businesses that had money because they wanted them to buy things for them,” says Kennedy. “Now they are looking more for the human resources.”

Despite the best intentions, some matches between schools and businesses founder. Sugarloaf eventually had to abandon its plan to include a couple of far-flung schools in its golf program because kids were spending too much time in transit. Some of Graystone Elementary’s partnerships with local chain outlets fell apart when individual managers left.

Relationships that prosper and endure may take vastly different forms, but they tend to have some sound practices in common. Whether a parent, businessperson or school principal initiates it, a partnership must meet a genuine need. It must have specific, agreed-upon goals as well as benchmarks to determine whether it’s on course to meet them. It should have top-level support from the business and the school, an orientation to acquaint teachers and volunteers with the undertaking at hand and someone to co-ordinate their efforts. A signed agreement is useful not only to clarify the intent and terms of the partnership but also, and perhaps more important, to celebrate its initiation.

Like healthy children, good school-business partnerships tend to grow. “It usually starts with employees or an individual getting involved in the life of a child in school,” says Merenda, “and as they become more involved and see the needs of the school and understand the complexities of education in today’s world, they draw on the resources of their organization or company to get more involved.” And typically, what may have begun as a task undertaken to solve a problem becomes a pleasure pursued–just for the satisfaction it brings to everyone involved.

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