Not just cutting check for schools, businesses are writing new lessons

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2011 - 11:03 PM

Schools are working closely with corporations here and across the nation to address growing financial and academic gaps.

Just cutting a check for a school doesn't cut it anymore for businesses.

In a significant shift away from "checkbook philanthropy," corporations in Minnesota and nationwide are not merely writing checks but are helping to write curriculums for schools, design or teach classes and train principals.

In St. Paul and Mahtomedi, 3M has already helped schools develop science curriculums and teach lessons. Cargill executives coach 11 Minneapolis charter school principals on management and business. And this school year St. Louis Park High School will ask corporations for help in designing electives.

"I'm seeing a move toward more advising and sharing business perspective than just cutting a check," said Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based nonprofit think tank. "Businesses would rather go that way. They see a value of working with the schools."

But is it too close for comfort? Some education advocates see schools and businesses flirting with moves they fear may diminish public education.

"My concern is that many partnerships benefit the company more than the school and students," said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston advocacy nonprofit. "It erodes public education and the purpose of education, which is not to train consumers but to promote citizens."

School leaders say they have to collaborate more with businesses to fill their growing financial and academic gaps.

A look at such collaborations around the country finds IBM helping to open an inner-city public high school in September. The school will prepare graduates for entry-level technology jobs, possibly at IBM.

In Nashville, Tenn., a high school joined with a local credit union to open a student-run branch in the cafeteria, open during lunch periods to students and staff.

"We have the youngest bank tellers in the state of Tennessee," said Aimee Wyatt, a former principal of Antioch High School. "It's been a win-win. They have to be prepared for the workforce."

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has urged businesses to "adopt" schools, giving anything from money to expertise.

Businesses apparently don't need any prodding.

In Minneapolis, Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic helped set up a $2.8 million, three-year leadership development program for principals. Corporate human resources executives will coach Minneapolis principals this year on management and other issues.

"In the past, we wrote a check and said, 'Good luck, Minneapolis public schools,'" said Ellen Luger of the General Mills Foundation. "Here we've collaborated with other businesses and we're bringing our expertise through our employees. Volunteers want to feel like ... they're making a difference and they have the skills that can move the needle on an issue."

3M volunteers advised Mahtomedi Public Schools on an engineering curriculum this year, but the 3M Foundation's Barbara Kaufman said the district led the curriculum conversations.

"Most of these teachers have never been in the industry ... we provide the relevancy," she said. "The bottom line is anyone can write a check. When you put your people in front of the check, that's when you make a difference."

A new realization

The change in corporate thinking reflects both a new approach to schools and a way to give in a tough economy, said Margaret Coady, director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, an international forum of business executives.

"Over time, I think there's been a realization within companies and outside companies that they were leaving value on the table," Coady said. "There were resources that were right at their fingertips that they could mobilize against certain societal issues."

According to the New York group, while companies reined in donations between 2007 and 2009, noncash giving surged. Coady said it signals that corporations still want to give back in the economic downturn and that nonprofits are more comfortable now with corporate involvement.

"There's going to be a learning curve how these sectors can work together," she said. "But public-private partnerships are kind of a core theme to any major conversation going on right now."

Do deals undercut education?

These partnerships build on previous trends in which public schools appealed to businesses for grants, allowed companies to advertise on scoreboards and signed exclusive contracts with soft-drink companies to increase revenues. But like the move to allow advertisements on lockers, this latest development is touching off a debate about the increased commercialism of public schools.

"It gets down to an ancient debate about what the purpose of education is," said Linn, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Is it to create a literate population who can think critically ... or to train a workforce?"

Linn questions if bankers advising curriculums will omit the recent failures of the banking industry. If engineers help design classes, she asks, what about environmentalists? And if IBM helps open a public school, she said, "why should we pay taxes" to support public education?

"That undermines the essence of education," she said.

Drawing on experts

But Christie, at the Education Commission of the States, said that as long as businesses don't interject values or promotions, partnerships should be embraced.

That's what St. Louis Park High School hopes to do this year, drawing on experts such as engineers or web designers to help revamp electives that better prepare teens for ever-evolving careers.

At Grand Rapids High School, principal Jim Smokrovich said financial planners, bankers and local Chamber of Commerce leaders strengthened a financial literacy course because they knew firsthand gaps in money management that need to be filled.

"For years, it's been taboo; it's been, 'We'll do our job and you do ours,'" he said. "But it's really nice to bring in an expert to reinforce the teacher. We're not experts in everything we teach."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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