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Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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Building Business Bridges

Eyeing that CEO across town with dreams of a successful school-business partnership?
Chances are, he or she has just as much to gain.

School leaders already know that partnerships with local businesses can offer quite a pretty package of goods. For one, there’s money—often a lot of money. There’s also expertise, talent, mentorship, and experience with driving a team toward a specific goal, with a clear bottom line in mind.

Smart CEOs know that schools, in turn, have a great deal to offer back. The students themselves present a hothouse of talent—ideal pickings for future recruitment and the perfect blank slates on which to impress a brand. Beyond practical reasons, the philanthropic efforts of businesses insure a better-educated, well-nurtured student body—good for everyone in the local and global community. Either way, a business mindset is hugely advantageous to the partnership, as it offers a clear structure, time frame, and expected results. “Businesses are goal driven and service oriented,” says Lydia Logan, executive director of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. “Partnerships that are successful have clear expectations—with a beginning, middle, and end—and a plan for how to get there.”

Rules of the Game

Experts say there are clear guidelines to follow to make a school-business partnership a success. For starters, decide what your school needs and come up with an effective pitch. Could teachers’ lesson plans use an infusion of real-world wisdom from a business professional? Are budget cuts forcing you to come up with creative ways to fund your arts program? Is there a community effort that kids would get excited about that would be beneficial to both the school and a specific business? Too often, administrators don’t know what they want from a business, or just make a general plea for money. Many companies would prefer to lend people or work under a specific initiative that is tailored to their particular strengths. Be open-minded and foster a two-way dialogue to find the right project, says Logan, and build from there. Remember that students have a lot to offer businesses as well; after all, they are tuned into every new trend that is shaping our culture, particularly when it comes to technology. For example, an after-school program called Sweat Equity Enterprises (SEE), based in New York, New York, works with underserved youth to design new fashion, shoes, and other products (www.sweatequityenterprises.org).

Once the kids come up with their designs, they often work with manufacturers to actually create and sell the products. Partnerships with businesses such as Nissan, Mark Ecko Enterprises, and RadioShack have reaped big rewards for both the kids and the corporations—the businesses allow the program to function, and the kids’ fresh insights and raw talent can find a real-world outlet. “I was knocked off my feet by the value we received,” says Bob Kilinski, vice president of brand development and communications for RadioShack. The SEE students “came back with great product ideas and store enhancements that we will strongly consider as we move forward,” Kilinski says.

Partnerships on the Rise

In recent years, the links between the business community and schools have grown. Nearly 70 percent of school districts engaged in some form of business partnership in 2000, up by 35 percent since 1990, according to research by the National Association of Partners in Education. Small businesses represent the largest share of school partners—76 percent, followed by medium corporations at 61 percent, and large ones at 42 percent.

These partnerships reflect both gifts of dollars and volunteer hours. With schools under pressure to perform, businesses can underscore the need to meet standards. “What businesspeople do best for the school is provide teachers and principals the air cover they need,” says Dana Egreczky, vice president of workforce development for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. Talking as their potential employers, a businessperson can tell students firsthand the importance of knowing algebra and writing well.

Getting Started

Before contacting a business, map out your goals and assess the needs of your school. Are you looking for internships? Funding for a particular event, such as a field trip? Guest speakers? Start with a manageable, realistic project that you can get done and done well, rather than try to do it all at once.

Brainstorm for potential partners and think about what your school has to offer. Come up with a sales pitch for why a business should get involved. Then do a mailing or contact companies in person. Become active in the local chamber of commerce, Lions Club, or Rotary International club, and look for opportunities to speak about your school’s accomplishments and needs. "Focus on sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships,” says Jay Engeln, a former principal and currently resident practitioner with The Council for Corporate and School Partnerships in Colorado Springs. “Businesses want kids to be as well prepared as they can be and reach their full potential. Better educated kids are better for business, the country, and students. We are all looking for the same thing.” However, concern over commercialism in the schools should prompt some caution. Be sure to choose companies aligned with your school’s mission. Try to determine the corporate motives and ask tough questions, if necessary. If you feel a business is trying to push its agenda too much, a good response may be: “You’ll lose more than you gain,” says Egreczky of the New Jersey Chamber.

The Business Mindset

Any good business will want to know the specifics before diving in: How much will it cost? How much time will it take? What will the results be? How will it benefit them? With a business in your own backyard, it’s easier to make the case of the ripple effect. But larger corporations making donations across the country are looking for quantifiable outcomes.Denver is one city trying to make it easy for businesses to plug into the schools. The School Partners Program of the Denver Public Schools Foundation has an interactive map on its Web site where businesses can click on a school and scroll through various
options for involvement.

“Hands-on involvement is the most compelling for many of the companies,” says Karla Raines, program director. Others want to underwrite a specific initiative, such as a certain field trip. “They want to know where their investment is going. That’s why a needs list is important,” she says. “It brings accountability as to where the money goes.” In Greenville, South Carolina, businesses want to stay connected to the schools for a basic reason: “It’s self-preservation on their part,” says Alex Martin, assistant superintendent for career technology education at Greenville County Schools. “They can’t provide the goods and services if they don’t have good employees.”

An Ongoing Relationship

A school can look like a confusing bureaucracy to an outsider, so try to designate one person as a point of contact for the business partner. At Rockville High School in Vernon, Connecticut, Karen Regan is the vocational liaison. If businesses want help, she tries to find the right students to job shadow or the right class for a guest speaker. At their quarterly business council breakfasts, Regan provides updates on school happenings and, in turn, the businesses share tips on preparing students for the workforce—with advice as basic as proper dress codes and language. “Our big plan is embedding the business community into the curriculum,” says Regan.

Because bridging the school-business divide can take some time and finesse, sometimes a third party works as matchmaker. Achieve!Minneapolis is an intermediary between the schools and businesses to make the connections more viable and productive, says Catherine Jordan, president and chief executive officer. “The cultures are so different from business to education. Businesspeople expect phone calls to be returned within 24 hours and e-mails responded to daily,” she says. “School life is a completely different experience. If a teacher has time to eat a muffin and get to the restroom, that’s a good day.” Whether a third party is involved or not, communication is the key to nurturing the partnership. “Most businesses want to know they are making a difference,” says Logan from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce. They want to improve the way the school runs, provide new experiences, and impact the lives of students. Businesses stay engaged when the impact of their contribution shows up in the school.To ensure that things proceed smoothly, ask for regular feedback from the business volunteers. Make sure their experience is fulfilling, and be mindful of the value of volunteers’ time. While a business schedule is often fixed, a school calendar is full of in-service days, holidays, and state testing. Remember that businesses’ involvement may be cyclical, says Martin of Greenville County Schools. At times, they may need to pull back on their financial commitment. But if you’ve cultivated personal involvement, often that can continue even without the monetary contributions.

Giving Thanks

Remember to wrap up a project or partnership with a gesture of thanks to the businesses. Breakfasts and luncheons at school to honor your business partners are greatly appreciated. Consider presenting a certificate in front of the businesses’ peers at a company event, chamber of commerce reception, or school board meeting. Invite local members of the press so that the businesses get recognition.

Businesses may be tough and goal oriented, but they aren’t above a sweet, personal gesture. Students from one Denver school, for example, made butterfly mobiles to thank their volunteers and added a note about how the volunteers helped the students grow from caterpillars to butterflies. @

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