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School Business Partnerships Helping Southeast Michigan Kids

From small shops to auto giants like GM, businesses are getting more involved in education. Could these 'win-win' arrangements keep growing?

In some cases, it's a mom-and-pop. In others, it's giant corporations. But one thing's sure in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties: Businesses are partnering with local schools, helping expand curricula and augment student's education.

For them, it’s a chance to give back, get publicity and shape the upcoming workforce. For schools, it helps stretch funds and prepare students for requirements beyond the ABCs of education. Will such partnerships continue to expand?

Partnerships in action

One example happened in Oakland County every Sunday last fall. A group of middle schoolers from First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham gathered at Schakolad Chocolate Factory, also in Birmingham, for Sunday school.

Inspired by high-school students from the church who have spent the last three years at a local coffee shop for their religious lessons, these sixth through eighth graders walked across the street to a more comfortable setting to learn about God, faith and community in a pilot program to take learning outside of the classroom.

"An innovative setting encourages attendance," says the Rev. Amy Morgan, associate pastor and director of youth ministries at First Presbyterian in Birmingham. "The location was a draw. Also, if we are talking in public: the idea is that faith or religion is something that can be talked about publicly. Sometimes, youth feel like religion has become a taboo subject. How we act in the world and how we understand the world are inextricably intertwined.

"And so the appropriate place to have conversations about faith are out in the world, sharing a cup of hot chocolate, telling stories about our lives and trying to make meaning of it all."

Douglas Cale, owner of Schakolad in Birmingham, believes business owners should support community institutions.

"After all, it is only together that we create a whole community. You never know where a collaboration might take you. They are our next-door neighbors, and we want to be part of the 'hood. And for us, it was free marketing to the congregation."

Cale partners with schools in other ways, too: donating products to fundraisers and spotlighting the local school district as a nonprofit partner of the month, giving the school exposure and a fundraising opportunity in the store.

Gaining steam

Across the country, schools big and small are partnering with neighborhood businesses and big conglomerates – benefiting students, teachers and communities – according to Education World, a San Diego-based website designed to be "a home for educators on the Internet."

According to a recent Education World article, "Any school leader who is not taking advantage of potential business partnerships in and surrounding their community is missing a tremendous opportunity – an opportunity most businesses are eager to pursue."

Schools have long turned to local businesses for special programs, assemblies or guest speakers – but with increased funding cuts for education, they are now finding that local businesses can provide programs to supplement and enrich their curricula, too.

What's more, the collaboration brings a win-win outcome for both entities: Students are exposed to an increasing array of perspectives and insights into the outside world, and businesses gain exposure to a new audience of potential customers and contribute to the education of the next generation of employees.

Local and global focus

Recently, Garden Fresh Gourmet, the Ferndale-based food company known for its award-winning salsa, was invited to Norup International School in Oak Park, part of the Berkley School District, to present to the second grade as part of its community curriculum. Garden Fresh was an example of a community producer.

"What I heard from (my daughter) Sophia is 'they worked hard, they started with an idea, and we got free chips and salsa,'" says Lisa Hawley, a Norup parent and chair of the counseling department in the Oakland University School of Education and Human Services. "You want educational institutions not isolated from their communities – and vice versa."

Norup's principal, Paul Yowchuang, was pleased with the Garden Fresh involvement.

 

"The students loved the presentation and got the real meaning of it," he says. "The teachers believed it was a positive educational experience, and the business owners found it to be an eye-opening experience."

The key, says Hawley, is that any business-school collaboration must provide benefits to both the business and the school. Of course, the business gets additional exposure among potential customers, but the school has to benefit, too, in ways that support curricula and empower students toward future career skill-building.

And with today's increased focus on global learning, bringing in non-educators to enrich curricula expands students' view of how what they're learning meshes with the world at large.

"Schools and businesses need to partner more," Yowchuang says. "Teaching students about business early and often is the approach we should take. Many students will end up in the business world, yet we do not do enough to show them what the business world is.

Businesses also need a better idea of what students are able to do beyond test scores, as many of the skills required to be successful in the business world are simply not measurable on math and reading tests."

Corporate guidance

That's a perspective shared by the leaders of teamGM Cares, an outgrowth of a $27.1 million donation from the General Motors Foundation to the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to support a Network of Excellence education program – the largest gift the foundation ever bestowed and the largest single gift the United Way for Southeastern Michigan ever received.

The program is a partnership between GM's foundation and United Way with the goal of improving graduation rates and career readiness in seven schools around metro Detroit: Detroit Central High School, East Detroit High School, Harper Woods High School, Hamtramck High School, River Rouge High School, Henry Ford High School in Detroit and Madison High School in Madison Heights.

The teamGM Cares crew hosts a job shadow day in February, where students visit the RenCen offices in Detroit to learn about what GM employees do in their jobs. GM's human resources staff has hosted three job-readiness workshops at Harper Woods High School, involving mock interviews, essay-writing on job skills and other activities. At Detroit Central High School, GM staff mentor students; at Hamtramck High School, they advise the robotics team.

"This is so important for us," says Sabin Blake, marketing manager for Cadillac and leader of teamGM Cares. "This is how we solve problems in our community – these are our future employees, our future customers. Now, more than ever, we view ourselves as a part of the community. It's not just an altruistic thing to do; it's an essential part of our business."

GM employees get time off during the workday to volunteer in schools, Blake notes.

"Whenever we can bring real world examples and what the real world is going to deliver for these students, that's giving them so much more of an advantage," he says.

Blake also sees it as a way to enhance education at a time when state and federal funding have sunk to all-time lows.

"There have been so many cuts, teaching staff are so short, and a lot are forced to teach to standardized tests to get funding," Blake says. "There's a shortage of workers who are equipped – we need them to get to work on day one. Unfortunately, (today's teachers) are not equipped to give all the essential skills that kids so desperately need."

Artistic 'risks'

But businesses just might be able to fill in this gap.

Joe Cornell Entertainment, a Southfield-based DJ and dance-etiquette instruction company, partners with Bloomfield Hills Schools to supplement its middle school International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

While Joe Cornell's sixth-grade dance program offers subtle lessons in etiquette and social graces, the school version focuses on encouraging the IB trait of risk-taking in a creative movement setting. The idea came from Bloomfield Hills Middle School associate principal Brian Fitzgerald, who contacted Joe Cornell in search of a missing component in the school's physical education program.

Last fall, Joe Cornell staff brought its dance instruction into the schools and was met with wide acclaim. "One of the traits we want to teach is being a risk-taker; getting 11-year-old boys to choreograph a dance with girls is certainly an opportunity to take risks," says Fitzgerald. "The kids went from reluctance to expanding their minds and really delving in to what they were learning. That is the best kind of education you can offer."

Says Joe Cornell vice-president Rebecca Schlussel, "We want to give them lessons for the 21st century – to create something for themselves. And they don't realize they are also learning important life lessons on how to interact with others."

The company routinely supports schools by DJing school parties, graduation events and fundraisers at deeply discounted rates.

"So long as the relationship is a win-win for both school and business, companies will find that schools are very receptive to partnering," says Joe Cornell president Steve Jasgur.

Brighter Future

I wish there had been an innovative option like this when my kids were young," says Cale, the father of two grown children. "Learning in a public place encourages different conversations than classes held in a school setting – and youth make connections between education and life, rather than keeping them separate."

For Hawley, the ultimate goal of school-business partnerships is to "expose children to careers and innovation."

"There are a lot of connections between educational institutions and businesses," she says. "We're probably going to see more of it."

Norup's Yowchuang sees the value in collaborating more with businesses.

"Children can benefit from the exposure, so they can set realistic goals about perhaps being in the business world some day," he says. "I rarely hear a student say, 'I want to own a business when I grow up,' or 'I want to work in international business,' when really these are careers that meet the skills that many of our students possess – creativity, marketing, interpersonal relationships.

"Business education is the most undervalued part of our system, and the best way to improve our school system is to have more connections with the business world, because that's where a larger number of our kids are going to be in the future," he says. "The public and private sectors can mix – and should mix more."

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