Joining Forces: Improving a High School Through Community Partnerships

Woodard Msc

Photos: Left: Students of Maplewood High School in Tennessee speak with a community partner at a Career Day event. Right: A student writes a menu at a coffee shop constructed as a result of a community partnership with the school.

It is imperative to ensure that industry and education are aligned in public education. However, this is easier said than done. As is, school leaders are under pressure on a daily basis to maintain safety and good order, improve student performance, evaluate teachers, respond to emails, address parent concerns, and meet district deadlines while juggling a host of other responsibilities. 

So when do leaders make time to develop community partnerships? More importantly, where does this task fall in the pecking order of priorities? As a former high school principal in a high-poverty, low-performing school, it was very difficult to gain traction with community partners. As a result of the past reputation of the school, we struggled to get people interested in providing support. Oftentimes when schools approach businesses, they ask for money or financial support. This is a huge turnoff to companies, especially small business owners who may struggle to make ends meet. Reaching out wasn’t going very well, so we decided to invite them in. We reversed the model and created a welcoming platform to get partners into our school. We developed a monthly meeting that we referred to as “Maplewood Monday.” 

Every fourth Monday of the month, we held a 60- to 75-minute lunch meeting in our community room. We invited local “mom and pop” business owners, community agencies, restaurant owners, the local police precinct commander, local churches, fast food managers, and local banks, just to name a few. We started with just six partners, and then it organically grew to more than 55 partners in a very short amount of time.

During the meeting, we would outline the challenges our school faced by listing each one on a whiteboard. Then, we would ask the community partners how they could utilize their resources to help us meet each of these challenges. We also allowed our students to showcase their work and invited these partners to any events we hosted at the school. We publicly saluted our partners at ball games and other community events to make them feel like they were a part of the community.   

The culmination of these partnerships resulted in the construction of a new health clinic on site, funded and operated by a local hospital; a $500,000 renovation for automotive technology; and the creation of an independent college and career center on campus, which operated like a collegiate student union to provide academic support. We also got a new fitness center, coffee shop on campus; and college scholarship pipeline from a local university that provided more than $1 million dollars annually in scholarship funding to assist first-generation college students in achieving access with a high-quality education.

Key Insights to Get Started
  1. Don’t be overly aggressive. Allow the partner to participate at their level of comfort.
  2. Never ask partners for money. Absolutely not. Never! Focus on building relationships with the business partners and the dollars will follow.
  3. Allow your students to give a tour of the school to potential partners and to share information about what they are learning. The kids are always the star of the show.
  4. Outline your challenges and allow community partners to participate at their level of comfort. Be sure you can clearly articulate what you would like for partners to do and explain how they can help. Help partners understand what’s in it for them.
  5. In terms of publicity, make a big deal about any and everything that your partners do for kids. It may seem like a small thing to you, but it is a huge sacrifice for the company. Share this information with parents, on your school’s social media sites, or with local news affiliates and/or your school newsletter. It makes the business partners proud for the community to see their investment and contributions to the school are on display publicly.
  6. Develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which outlines the rules of engagement around partner participation.
  7. Assign a person to serve as a liaison who will protect the interests of the company and inform you of concerns that the company may have regarding the partnership.

Although it may sound cliché to say partnerships will improve schools, it is true. A study published in the School Community Journal indicated that return on investment was a significant influencer on the life and sustainability of a successful school-business partnership. In other words, businesses that invest in schools want to ensure they are not wasting money.

Here are other ways partners can support your school:

  • Academic enrichment, including providing before- and/or after-school academic tutors.
  • Leading class presentations on financial management or serving as judges for various school events.
  • Sponsoring field trips based on a specific academic area or providing a classroom demonstration of their business skills.
  • Developing student mentoring programs, which can be held at the school for character development. Community partners can play a key role in providing volunteers to work with students one on one to help build self-esteem, personal confidence, interviewing techniques, resume development, soft skills, and more.
  • Assisting with college/career readiness, which can include classroom guest speakers, internships, college visits, career days, and more. By joining forces with business partners, a school can align its goals and initiatives to the specific areas of expertise that the company may have. As businesses support public schools by offering internship and job-shadowing opportunities, a better educated future workforce will develop. Students get practical, hands-on, real-world work experience which helps them gain a better understanding of the specific skills and education that employers are looking for.

These experiences better prepare our students to enter the workforce following graduation. The benefit is better-trained employees for companies which stimulates and spurs economic growth.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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