Learning First Alliance

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Community Relationships: A Mutual Return on Investment

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

The purple shaded area in a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles – one blue and one red – is the sometimes uneasy but always necessary connection between traditional public schools and the business community. The extent to which healthy public-private partnerships develop depends entirely on how those partnerships are ultimately managed by those at the local level.

It’s not surprising that public schools and businesses may have an inherent distrust of each other. After all, their missions are very different; public schools exist to provide every child a quality education and businesses exist to make a profit. But the economic recession is forcing schools to do more with less, which is in turn pushing more districts to look at ways to finance their operations, including by forming partnerships with businesses and other community stakeholders that may not have existed in the past.

In this month’s article “Linking Schools and Businesses” published in the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) American School Board Journal, Naomi Dillion writes about the budget woes for Florida’s Manatee County Public Schools, but notes: “The district was able to avoid the most draconian cuts in large part because of the ties school leaders built with their business community.”

For those who are apprehensive about forming such ties, there are several key dynamics to keep in mind. First, relationships must be mutually beneficial. Schools and businesses must both be clear about their needs and what they expect to derive from such a relationship. Public schools are frequently in need of investments to maintain key courses and programs, but ties with community businesses also provide valuable and enriching internship opportunities for students. Businesses may be looking for opportunities to market products, but for Manatee’s district coordinator of community involvement – Dawn Allen - it’s a matter of identifying areas that are mutually beneficial: “[Allen] routinely swats down solicitations from businesses who simply want schools to sell their products,” writes Dillion.

Given school administrators are also routinely juggling many competing priorities and may not have the time or resources to devote to creating and sustaining healthy community partnerships, coordinators like Allen play a critical role in managing the dynamics of such connections and helping establish clear lines of communication. For example, she created a web-based application Electronic Partners in Education (or ePIE) that allows businesses to register and choose which schools they want to work with. The school is then immediately notified. While this resource streamlines the process, Allen serves as a gatekeeper for the more unreasonable requests or suggestions. Overall, in Manatee, businesses are seeing a benefit in hosting students as interns because it allows students to engage in a real world environment as future employees in given industries and companies.

As a second example, several students from Virginia's Denbigh High School’s Aviation Academy spent the week at NASA’s Langley Research Center, building key connections with professionals and gaining on-the-ground experience. Their teachers also benefited from this connection when NASA invited a group of them for hands-on training and paid for some engineering courses at the University of Virginia.

Another successful partnership can be found in Syracuse, New York. Say Yes to Education, Inc is a national non-profit committed to dramatically increasing the high-school and college graduation rates for America’s inner-city youth. In Syracuse, the Foundation spearheaded a collaboration of non-profits, corporate businesses and philanthropic entities that came together to invest in Syracuse Public Schools. The system of sustained support for K-12 education includes resources such as tutoring and mentoring, social work and counseling services, family outreach and engagement, an extended learning period, and financial aid counseling. The investment culminates with the promise of free tuition for all Syracuse City School District graduates who meet certain requirements for admission into any of more than 100 higher-education institutions. The results are astonishing and widespread throughout the community.

Examples such as these are encouraging case studies for other districts. Neighborhood schools have long been considered the heartbeat of the larger community, and theoretically, these models may be particularly beneficial in areas of the country that struggle with the so-called ‘brain-drain’ phenomenon. Students that make more substantial connections to their wider communities may be more inclined to stay and invest as young adults and future workers and parents. In this way, public-private partnerships are a key component in economic development plans.

To be sure, there are inherent dangers that arise from relying too heavily on external funding streams, for any entity or organization. Schools or districts that use one-time investments to upgrade their technology, for example, must also budget to sustain upgrades into the future without counting on additional funding. But these issues can be addressed with careful planning – for example, in Syracuse, a blueprint ensures financial, and programmatic, sustainability from within the district by 2014.

Many experts agree that public school funding may never recover to pre-recession levels, yet in an increasingly competitive world, we must continue our commitment to educate each child and prepare him or her to be an active contributor to both the workplace and to society through acts of citizenship. Businesses and communities are the ultimate beneficiaries of a robust public education system and well-defined and effectively managed public-private partnerships can be a key contributor that serves everyone’s long-term interests.