School - Business Partnerships

More Than Just Pizza Parties

By:Hazel K. Palmer

Issue:Fall 2005 : Articles


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Product Development Manager Lisa Davis works with a student in her office at Woodcraft.


Throughout the Mountain State, educators are searching for ways to improve students’ achievement. For some, the answer is as close as the business partner down the road. Businesses are, after all, the potential employers of most public school graduates. And they know all too well that American school children under-perform when compared to those in most other developed countries. Business partners can and should do more than host the proverbial end-of-year pizza party.

Many business partners want to get involved in the essence of education: learning.

If you’re visualizing an adult and a student doing repetitive problems or droning on about uninteresting material, think again. Instead, visualize this: You are in a room where students and partners are working on the construction of a 28-piece birdhouse, which has combined lesson plans containing math, science, geography, reading, writing and technology-based curricula to support the project! Furthermore, the hands-on portion of the lesson plan emphasizes safety and responsibility.

Can you feel the excitement and energy level? Can you see the pride and self-confidence in the students’ eyes? Can you feel the business partner’s sense of accomplishment and joy having helped the students produce a tangible product through careful thought and work? Certainly, these almost miraculous events were evident to the folks from Wood County’s Worthington Elementary school and Woodcraft Supply Corp. who brought about these hopeful changes. This example clearly shows the potential of a successful school/business partnership at work.

School/business partnerships have a long history in West Virginia. There are hundreds of them across the state. Businesses work with their school to benefit students in various ways. Some businesses reward students with perfect attendance or students whose grades have improved. Some serve on advisory committees, offer job shadowing at their place of business, give guest lectures in classes, host receptions for school personnel, coach students for academic competitions or help in other ways.

We started the Results-based Business Partnership Program because we found that some schools and their partners found their relationship too limited. Both the schools and the business wanted more. The program, funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, focuses on improving student achievement by linking caring adults with at-risk students in structured, regular tutoring sessions.

Business partners in the program work with their schools to identify areas that need to be strengthened and design a program to address the need. The program started in the 2003-2004 school year with a diverse group of partners, including two large businesses (Columbia Gas Transmission and Eastern Associated Coal Corp.), a medium-size business (Woodcraft Supply), a small business (STAR USA Federal Credit Union), a government agency (the FBI) and a labor group ( a United Mine Workers local in Morgantown).

A third-party evaluation concluded that the size of the partnership had no effect on outcome. It was those partnerships that designed tutoring and one-on-one sessions between students and the partners that were particularly effective.

For example, one partnership achieved a significant increase in writing assessments measured at a statistical confidence level of 95 percent. If the business and school worked together to identify a need and designed a program to address that need in a way that incorporated individual attention for students, the program was most likely to have a substantial impact on learning.

While the objective positive outcomes of this program are important, so are the subjective outcomes. Ultimately, learning will take place when students have some interest in and even enthusiasm for the educational process. While scientific measurement of this might be difficult, every teacher knows how much more satisfying the process is for all concerned when students are engaged.

Feedback from teachers, parents, principals and volunteers was positive. Some students showed remarkable academic progress and parents reported seeing an improvement in grades. Volunteers also noticed an improvement in students’ progress, and teachers reported that students eagerly anticipated the tutoring sessions, which improved their attitudes toward school. Finally, The Education Alliance became convinced that the project energized partnerships and encouraged these collaborations to look for new and creative ways to reach students.

This year, 16 school/business partnerships in 10 West Virginia counties are involved in Results-based Partnerships, including two high schools and two middle schools. Already two schools have shown positive results. Reading scores at Daybrook Elementary School in Monongalia County increased to a 99 percent confidence level at mid-point. Students at Central Elementary in Upshur County also showed statistically significant increases in reading levels.

Worthington Elementary Principal Rose Mary Stull calls the Worthington/Woodcraft Supply partnership a “symbiotic relationship – each entity, working in close association, benefits from its work to increase student achievement.”

Businesses involved in the program are equally enthusiastic.

Jennifer Goddard, manager of communications and community relations for Columbia Gas Transmission, notes that participating schools and businesses each “bring unique talents and opportunities to the table. Employees enjoy stepping away from workday challenges to tutor students for half an hour and they know their time is well spent.”

Given the program’s success rate and obvious benefits, why aren’t more schools working with their partners to focus on results? There are several explanations. Some schools are so overwhelmed by the requirements of the new federal No Child Left Behind law that they do not have the time and resources to implement a results-based partnership. In fact, several schools dropped out of the pilot. Some school/business partnerships have grown stale or are partnerships only on paper. Those partnerships might be energized if they clearly understood the program potential.

There are several ways to address these issues. In Kanawha County, The Education Alliance worked with the Charleston Area Alliance to host a county-wide school-business partnership meeting, partly funded by the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation. During the meeting, best practices were showcased, issues were discussed and commitments were made to strengthen the county partnerships. The Charleston Area Alliance felt so strongly about the value of the partnerships that it committed to help locate partners for schools in Kanawha County and it entered a one-year agreement with The Education Alliance to host school/business partnership meetings with the feeder schools for each high school.

In Greenbrier County, a county school-business partnership meeting was hosted by the Greenbrier Board of Education. The participants were very excited about implementing some of the best practices they discovered and 75 percent requested the results-based partnership training.

Another issue that has arisen is that many volunteers and school personnel feel a need for greater personal connections among students and volunteers. They feel that tutoring needs to be augmented by mentoring. An intensive mentoring program envisioned by the Alliance is a perfect addition and complement to the results-based model. Not only will this mentoring model enable schools to provide at-risk students with trained, caring mentors, but it will also allow expansion of the research, if funding is obtained. Perhaps we will be able to learn the most time-efficient and cost-effective way of using employee volunteers to improve student academic performance and attitude toward learning.

Several times during my career, I have surveyed employers to learn what skills are needed by new employees. Invariably, employers say they need folks who can communicate, compute, work in teams and learn on the job. They want motivated, cooperative employees who can grow with their job.

If you feel strongly about the knowledge and skills of the future workforce, here is your opportunity to make a difference.

To learn more or to sign up, you may access our Web site at http://www.educationalliance.org, or call 866.31.4KIDS. We are excited about the engaged learning we see taking place and the caring connections being made between adults and children. Please join us and share our excitement!