When Schools and Businesses Collaborate, Students Win

Feb 28, 2014

This post is by Gayle Villani, vice president of programs for PENCIL, a New York-based organization that since 1995 has created innovative models of collaboration between businesses and public schools.

Gayle Villani

One of the most important trends in education this year will be how the business community continues to act on its desire to support our public schools.

Like most trends, this one has been building for some time: last year, during his State of the Union address, President Obama focused on Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) – a collaboration between the Department of Education and IBM – as a model for the future. That model is being replicated well beyond New York state, where it started – in Chicago, for example, they launched four schools built on a similar model.

The P-Tech model is an intensive one, and while it’s inspiring that IBM has invested so heavily in this particular model, not all companies have the resources to create brand new schools. The good news is that there are other models that enable businesses across the spectrum to have a deep impact on schools in their community.

Since 1995, PENCIL has been working at the intersection of school need and business expertise to foster stronger school cultures, engage families in their school communities and prepare students for college and career success: Last year, 9 of 10 principals engaged in our program said their PENCIL partnerships helped improve school culture, student performance or both.

But it takes much more than the willingness to volunteer to make a difference. Any school and business can take steps toward helping students reach their potential if they follow these best practices:

Align volunteer skills with school needs – Before partners begin to work together, they need to best understand how to align the business volunteer’s skills and good intentions with a school’s needs. In these cases, the business volunteer might offer a service that the school doesn’t really need. To avoid this situation, intermediary organizations must strategically match business volunteers’ expertise with specific school needs in the key areas that are proven levers for improvement in school and student performance.

Set clear expectations and realistic goals – Similarly, principals shouldn't expect – and volunteers shouldn't promise – more than they can offer. Both schools and businesses should commit to what they really can do – not what they wish they could do. These realistic goals make everyone feel successful, keep everyone engaged and motivated and, over time, lead to those dramatic, inspiring results everyone is hoping for.

Measure impact – Measurements abound in school and in business – firms ask themselves if they’re providing their customers with the level of service that they demand, and schools track student learning throughout the year. But when volunteers and schools come together, too often they forget about taking meaningful measurements.

Maintain ongoing and open communication – When volunteers join a school community, it's the creation of a relationship. Both parties need to commit to maintaining regular and honest communication with each other, whether by email, phone or in person. When the program isn’t working, communication is about being open to the truth and determining what changes should be made.

Provide comprehensive support – While school-business partners who adhere to the above guidelines can produce great results, the reality is that schools and businesses are two very different worlds. Having an expert intermediary “translate” the realities of each and help both partners understand each other’s challenges – and the ways to address them – is an asset that maximizes school-business collaborations and their impact.

When you take those steps, you can make a tremendous difference. Watch this video to see the impact Morgan Stanley made at the Business of Sports School, where the company worked with school leadership and teachers to mentor students in college and career readiness skills.

By working together in a targeted, strategic and supported way, schools and businesses can find innovative new ways to invest private sector insight and intellectual capital in our students, and in our future.