Making Your Mark on Education

By teaming up with school districts, businesses can help improve the local workforce--and learn a thing or two themselves

Starting this fall, more than 45,000 Florida high schoolers will roll the dice on an amusing board game with a serious purpose. Called Strive to Drive, it takes students through the process of choosing, financing, and insuring a car--and earning the bucks to pay for it.

A Milton Bradley classic? Hardly. The game is a gift to the state's schools from Paradigm Learning Inc., a 45-employee developer of corporate training games in Tampa. Chief Executive Raymond D. Green and his staff spent six months and $80,000 developing this money-management exercise, which is intended to help students meet new state education standards preparing them for the work world. Then, Green turned the rights to the game over to a not-for-profit state education group. As a consultant to many blue-chip corporations, Green has heard plenty about their problems in hiring qualified workers, and he wants to help: "If we can take care of our young people's education now, it's going to be better for all of us in the future," says Green.

In Little Rock, Allegra Print & Imaging, a 10-employee printing company, is making a more modest but still valuable contribution to one junior-high and two elementary schools. Husband-and-wife owners, Darwin and Lisa Buehler, are short on free time, but they help the schools conserve their scarce cash by offering free printing services for newsletters, stationery, and directories. Lisa Buehler also fund-raises for the schools, pops over for storytelling sessions, and leads the kids on tours of her business. "The biggest satisfaction of doing this work is the enjoyment and knowledge students gain from it," she says. She has gained in other ways, too: The extra exposure for her printing services has brought in about 30 new clients.

As politicians bluster and educators struggle over the best way to improve the nation's schools, a growing number of entrepreneurs are quietly doing their part. Motivated by both a pragmatic need for a qualified workforce and a desire to fulfill their own sense of social responsibility, they're teaming up with local school systems in ways as varied as the companies themselves.

The extent of small-business involvement is best revealed in a survey just released by the National Association for Partners in Education Inc., an Alexandria (Va.) clearinghouse of information on such programs. The report shows that small business partnerships with schools have outpaced the number of programs at mid-size and large companies. In 2000, small companies with 50 employees or less accounted for 76% of the business-school partnerships, up from 41% a decade ago. What's more, the survey says, small companies now run a close second to parent-led groups in the number of school partnerships they've formed.

Meanwhile, the role that small business can play in improving the schools is attracting attention in Washington. In an effort to help new graduates make a smoother transition into the workforce, the Senate Committee on Small Business has commissioned a new General Accounting Office report on the best working examples of partnerships between schools and small businesses. Hearings will take place in September. "Small businesses in particular have a tremendous stake in our nation's educational system," says committee Chairman Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.). Without a well-qualified workforce, small companies can't grow and prosper. And without good schools in their communities, it's harder to attract top employees.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs have a lot to offer the schools, proponents of school partnerships say, particularly in the realm of career development. For one, entrepreneurs can serve as valuable role models for students. Also, small-business internships can often give students a broader and more varied experience than they would get in a large corporate setting. "When you consider the wealth of expertise that lies with small business, the learning potential is enormous," says Darla Strouse, executive director of corporate and foundation development for the Maryland Education Dept.

Unlike traditional charity or volunteer work, a business-school partnership is just what the term implies: a mutually beneficial relationship. The school gets access to your valuable resources--your expertise, your time, and maybe your equipment. And if your company manages to achieve a higher profile and a little marketing bounce out of the association, that's perfectly all right. Want to get involved? Patience is a prerequisite in dealing with school bureaucracy. But persistence can pay off. Here's a lesson plan from entrepreneurs who have already done their homework:

Take the initiative. Now is a good time to begin planning for fall programs. Most school districts have partnership or volunteer offices to coordinate these programs, but they seldom have time or resources to do outreach, says Susan Otterbourg, a Durham (N.C.) education consultant. Call your school district, Chamber of Commerce, or local school-to-work program (table), and set up an appointment. You may also get in touch with an individual school directly.

Be straightforward. Present the school or school district with a list of your resources, and be candid about what you can and can't do. Schools don't mind if there's an incidental marketing benefit. That means it's O.K. to donate a product that has a company logo, but you should avoid transparent marketing schemes, such as handing out coupons or doing a product pitch in class.

Demand accountability. If you're contributing equipment or money, you have the right to know how your gifts are being utilized. "If you give a computer, you ought to know who is using it, how often, and for what," says Otterbourg.

Leverage your products and expertise. You don't have to spend a lot of time or money to make an impact: Just use your resources creatively. For example, software developer Decision Support Inc. in Matthews, N.C., supplies one of its execs for two hours a week each semester to teach computer classes to recently arrived immigrants at the nearby Independence High School in southeast Charlotte. In White Marsh, Md., Bill Wallace, CEO of Action Business Systems, a $15 million-a-year office-equipment dealer, gave $200,000 worth of computers and fax machines to 12 Baltimore magnet schools to launch a virtual mentoring program he calls "Fax of Life." Then, he rounded up 75 professionals to answer students' questions on careers via fax and e-mail.

Treat a partnership as seriously as any client relationship. Schedule activities during office hours. At Paradigm Learning, some staffers balked at devoting work time to the project. "My response was that if we don't make this a priority--and only work on it when we have down time--we're not really giving anything," says Green. Another approach: Make participation voluntary. Give extra credit to employees come review time.

Manage the partnership. Good follow-through is essential, so put someone in charge. For example, over the course of nine years, the 70-employee Northeast Bank of Minneapolis has helped the inner-city Holland Elementary School build a playground, equip a computer lab, and enjoy music lessons and live performances by the Minnesota Orchestra. One key to the partnerships' success is the commitment of bank President Belva Rasmussen, but she credits Suzanne Sjoselius, vice-president for marketing, with keeping the program on track. Sjoselius stays in close touch with the teachers, sits on a school governance committee, and ensures there's a steady flow of bank volunteers to read to the students every week.

Ramp up slowly. Let the partnership evolve as your company and the school work together. When, an online tutoring service in New York, formed a partnership last year with the Choir Academy of Harlem, the home of the famed Boys Choir of Harlem, CEO George Cigale's first step was to donate $10,000. Those funds were used to buy laptops to keep touring choristers up-to-date on their studies. Gradually, the relationship has inched into the classroom, where staffers have done class presentations and provided some tutoring. Cigale mentors the school's juniors and even did a stint as principal for a day to observe administrator's challenges.

Give and receive. Cigale freely admits that his company is gaining as much as it's giving.'s employees have been inspired and motivated by the experience--and has raised its profile within the education community. However, like most other entrepreneurs, Cigale isn't just in this for the good P.R. The real payoff will come later, when today's students make the grade in the world of work.

By Stephanie B. Goldberg

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.