Businesses have a vested interest in their communities. They need a strong pool of local workers to choose from and consumers who can afford their products. Many businesses want to give to the community and invest in it, but sometimes they aren’t sure where to start. Schools can also benefit from these partnerships, providing students with opportunities for success in the workforce.
Charlie Katz, Director of Corporate Engagement at the National Academy Foundation (NAF), a network of 500 academies serving over 60,000 students across the United States, says that business partnerships can address the new Three R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships.
A lack of relevance is a key reason why so many students today drop out of school, especially in urban areas where many of the NAF academies are located. However, by building strong partnerships with over 2,500 businesses across the country, NAF has seen their graduation rate soar to 97%.
Katz recommends engaging business partners for many roles: guest speakers, job shadowing, student conferences, mentorships, and internships. These types of activities can make learning more relevant by providing real-world examples.
For instance, Katz once sat in on a high school accounting class with a teacher who was good, but very dry. When he was invited to speak, he illustrated the same lesson with his real-life example of calculating inventory for Ford Mustangs. The class perked up when they realized the relevance of the lesson to a good, interesting job.
Businesses can help provide a more rigorous and skills-based curriculum, highlighting employability skills like teamwork, communication, and presentation skills among others. And they provide students with the third R, relationships. Relationships are not only important in the job market, but also to their personal lives—students gain access to role models they many not otherwise have.
So with clear benefits to students, how do you get started? Here are some ideas:
- Build a local advisory board. The NAF schools assemble advisory boards that reflect the whole education community: students, parents, educators, and community partners. This group can be charged to invite local businesspeople into the classroom. Students can be the intermediaries between school and the business partner; they can talk about what is happening in the classroom to provide context and to give a human face to the school.
- Start small. Provide opportunities that aren’t too time intensive or expensive for businesses. For local, small business owners in a tough economy, there may be a perception that these programs will go beyond their means. Doris Bodnar, Chief Executive Officer of the Bodnar Group, a small financial services company, recommends opportunities such as mock interviews with students. This allows students to practice a real skill they need to be successful and only requires a few hours of a businessperson’s time. Two businesses could also split a summer internship, allowing a student to still have a rewarding full internship and experience two different companies.
- Highlight benefits! Highlight for business the benefits they gain by hiring a 16 or 17 year-old student. Students are learning relevant, 21st century skills, and global knowledge. They have a lot of energy, excitement, plus a desire to succeed. Who wouldn’t want someone like that working for them? And these students return from college as highly skilled laborers. Stress to businesses that the skills and relevance they provide will benefit themselves as well as the students. With two thirds of America’s economy driven by consumer spending, a well-educated worker is preferred to a drop-out. The Alliance for Excellent Education’s Bob Wise points out, “Ask any retailer whether their future depends on consumers earning a high school dropout’s $9 per hour or the $20 per hour of postsecondary achievement.”
- Understand teachers are learners, too. Businesses can also provide opportunities for teachers. For instance, a two-week externship for a finance teacher could allow them to practice their classroom knowledge and return to it with real-world examples. If businesses provide professional development for their employees, such as time management classes, they could consider opening those up to teachers as well. Teachers sitting in on advisory board meetings often leads to new ideas.
- Be flexible. Jule Baradi, Senior Director of Learning Governance at Marriott International Inc., a major supporter of these partnerships, advises to create programs that are very flexible and simple. Marriott creates checklists and planning guides and then allows their local properties to personalize and streamline the programs in the way that works best for them.
- Make it international. Readers of this website will want to find internationally focused business partners. Look for companies in your community that depend on exporting, importing, or international banking. And make contact with your local Rotary, World Trade Council, or Chamber of Commerce to explore connections.
What if a business seems reluctant to participate? Katz points out that if someone only learns about the local schools through the media, they may have a negative, and incorrect perception of what students today are actually like. Bodnar says the key is to get people into the classroom to meet the kids—once they see the energy of the students they often change their minds. So “stoke their ego” and invite them to give a short talk about their experience, or ask them to come to a reception where students present. Make it something small to serve as an introductory step and break the ice. Baradi says she too has seen employees quickly warm to the idea of working with students—it is human nature. If someone observes a colleague mentoring students, they have a desire to do it as well.
NAF provides resources to help businesses get started.
This piece is based off the Alliance for Excellent Education webinar, College and Career Readiness for All Youth: The Role of Businesses, presented on January 10, 2013.