"The Corporation's Role as a School Partner." By Elizabeth P. Dickey and William L. Bainbridge. The EMA Journal. Winter 1991.

The Corporation’s Role as a School Partner

by Elizabeth P. Dickey & William L. Bainbridge

Corporations have a significant stake in the effectiveness of public education in this country. Deficiencies in the educational system and a need for companies to regain their competitive edge have created a growing recognition that there is a mismatch between the number of jobs and skilled people to fill them. the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) has indicated that because of this widening gap about $210 billion a year is spent by U.S. businesses on formal and informal employee training compared with $238 billion spent nationwide for elementary, secondary and higher education combined. The problem has been viewed as so dire that Chief Executive, Fortune, and leading corporations have convened conferences of corporate leaders, educators and politicians to discuss the issues.

Education "partnerships" have grown from 42,000 to over 140,000 in just five years, according to Leonard Lund, senior research associate at the Conference Board. "Almost 60 percent are business partnerships with local schools; primarily one-to-one adopt-a-school programs with businesses providing speakers for school assemblies, underwriting awards to students and teachers, and contributing small amounts of financial assistance for various school needs," Lund noted. Such relationships have proven to be beneficial to schools and corporations, as school systems pit limited budgets against galloping costs, and businesses find that the products of underfunded, underequipped institutions are not work-ready in today’s high-tech business environment.

Whatever they’re called and however they’re structured, major objectives are the same: increased student skill achievement, dropout prevention and enhanced resources for the schools.

Adopt-a-School Programs

Founded in Oakland in the late 1970s, the adopt-a-school concept is evolving into a mutual support mechanism whereby businesses contribute human and capital resources in exchange for the hope, long-term, of a better qualified crop of graduates for their employee ranks. In fact, some school systems have abandoned the "adopt-a-school" label in favor of the term, "partnerships," an indication of their evolution from implied dependency to expressed mutuality.

School administrators across the country—Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Phoenix, Oakland and others—reported similar evolutions. Some that were once centralized are now decentralized. Some have abandoned the initial concept in favor of a new one. The common denominator, however, is that businesses are becoming more, not less, involved in the public education process.

Contributions have ranged from donations of computer and laboratory equipment, furniture and funding for specific programs in math and science or English as a second language, to provision of tickets and transportation to sports and cultural events. Bringing parents, teachers, and students together for a "Son of Heaven" traveling exhibit of Chinese history and art, for example, offers a rare educational, social and cultural experience. Exposure to new things develops student language skills and reading comprehension.

Volunteers contribute time during working hours reading to children and listening to them read, tutoring in math and science, playing games, working in the library or the computer lab, chaperoning field trips, sharing hobbies, and being "lunch pals." Volunteers serve as extensions of the teachers. They provide additional positive adult role models.

Such companies provide part-time work for students, sheltering their working hours to ensure minimum conflict with homework responsibilities and normal sleep hours. A powerful add-on involves cooperation between parents, employer and school guidance counselor to terminate the job if a student drops out of school.

Business Academies

One of the leading companies in initiating programs to deal with the projected workforce shortage is financial giant American Express Company. Using a mentorship approach, in 1982, AMEX together with the New York City Board of Education initiated a successful "Academy of Finance" in New York City. Now being expanded by the National Academy Foundation, the program offers a two-year experience for high school juniors and seniors with special curriculum designed by educators in consultation with industry experts and a paid summer internship after the junior year at a sponsoring financial company. American Express Chief Executive Officer James D. Robinson III indicates that their Academy has been extended from finance to travel and tourism. He contends that if the concept can work for two industries it should work for many others.

Other leading companies in the academy movement include Burger King, Cray Research, Inc., general Electric and Pacific Telesis.


The Learning Juncture, a nonprofit central Ohio organization, provides high school students with an opportunity to experience community based learning in the form of workplace mentorships. Students in schools such as Westerville and Reynoldsburg, Ohio, are paired with adults in the profession or trade in which the student has expressed an interest. Over a period of 3 to 4 months, the student spends several hours per week with the mentor, at the mentor’s place of employment, observing and, when appropriate, participating in the activities of the mentor. The student attends seminars designed to help focus on responsibilities and opportunities. Additionally, the student keeps a journal recording the activities of the mentorship.

Workplace mentorships differ significantly from adopt-a-school or business academies. During the mentorship the emphasis is on the personal interests, growth and understanding of the individual student. During an adopt-a-school or business academy program the students often must adapt their interests to those of the adopting corporation.

Organizing for Partnerships

Key components of a partnership are its ongoing nature and its reciprocity. The most successful programs appear to be those that are formalized by a written partnership agreement.

Typically such an agreement begins with a goal statement. The samples below are taken from several sources and are not all inclusive:

  • To encourage at-risk students to complete high school and to assist students in making a successful transition between school and work.
  • To enhance learning at both institutions and to use/share each others’ facilities to implement programs. (Agreement between a local college and a public school).
  • To provide support for students with emotional and academic needs, and to involve the total community in the education of our youth.

The goal statement may be followed by a statement of level of commitment by volunteers, the partner company and the school:

Volunteers will strive as tutors, role models, mentors, lunch pals and coaches to help:

  • strengthen student academic achievement
  • enhance student self-esteem
  • provide enrichment activities
  • provide increased opportunities for individual and small group exercises.

The partner company will:

  • be an advocate for school and public education in the community
  • grant employees time away from work or on the job site to participate as volunteers
  • encourage management and others with special talents and skills to assist in the development of innovative curriculum.

The school faculty and staff will:

  • develop and implement innovative curriculum
  • develop and pursue objectives to improve test scores and overall academic performance
  • identify areas of need for volunteers and corporate support
  • provide school contact to work with volunteers and provide constructive feedback.

Terms and conditions of the partnership recommend continuation through the end of the school year, followed by an evaluation to determine results, and a decision to continue or not.

Evaluating Partnerships

Why the commitment from the business community? The quality of its future workforce is at stake. New teaching tools, information resources and methods ensure that what is taught today is not obsolete tomorrow.

The Partnership Model below illustrates a two-tiered approach to defining partnership priorities: the first priority being actions that have potential for long-term systemic impact on the education process, and second priority, those that have immediate but more transient impact as the beneficiaries move through and out of the process.

Technology sometimes changes too fast for educators and textbooks to keep up. The expense of staying current is enormous. The cost of computers is out of reach for many school systems. More single parent families and more dual income families mean fewer parent volunteers in neighborhood schools.

Partnerships are providing the avenues for businesses to fill some of the gaps between needs and resources.

Charlotte’s Winterfield Elementary School Principal Trudy Griffin observes:

"The time is right for businesses to reach out to schools and form partnerships. Our nation is at a critical crossroads. National studies released (in April, 1990) indicate that one-third of the nation’s children living in urban areas are existing below the poverty line. Nationally, there has been a five percent increase in children living in poverty in the last 17 years. Five hundred thousand children are victims of malnutrition daily. It behooves us in the educational arena to join with the businesses in making citizens aware of the needs of our children. Their physical, emotional and psychological needs directly impact the effectiveness the educational process will have on the lives of children. The critical need for our children is brighter childhoods. What happens to our children eventually happens to our country."

Are all partnership experiments successful? No. But many of them appear to be. Regretfully, most have not been evaluated in terms of their relationship to the strategic objectives of the businesses or the academic outcomes anticipated by the schools. Corporate underwriters are beginning to ask educators to be accountable for the investment of money, equipment and human resources. The operative question seems to be: "Is the partnership producing measurable differences in student achievement and attitude?"

Both school systems and corporations will need to focus on the "bottom line" during the ‘90s. In the absence of measurable date, those partnerships that appear to be in visible trouble seem to lack a clear mission and program structure or are unable to overcome initial mistrust.

To further complicate matters, some schools and teachers are not involved by choice. When the staff doesn’t want the additional work involved, such as training tutorial volunteers, providing ongoing feedback, designing tasks for the volunteers, following up on completion, scheduling tutors, and attending to administrative detail, the programs are destined to self-destruct. Some teachers and school administrators feel threatened by the arrival of outsiders whose presence may be viewed as an implication that the job wasn’t being done right.

Another barrier to success is overestimating what can be achieved and then having inadequate measurement capability to determine progress toward the goal. It is better to aim for small achievements that can be measured and seen in the short-term.

The outlook for partnerships points to continued growth. Hopefully, John Naisbitt’s prediction in his Trend Letter that, "In the next millennium, we may look back on the ‘90s as the ‘Decade of the Child’ – a landmark period when both public and private sectors took dramatic steps to nurture children," will prove to be prophetic.

Elizabeth P. Dickey is manager, human resources for Hoechst Celanese Corporation, Charlotte, and is president of EMA. William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., president of Public Priority Systems, is the chief executive officer of a comprehensive information service on public and private schools, SchoolMatch. Both authors serve on the EMA Foundation board of directors.