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Education Foundations' Success Lies in Business Involvement


Mark Howard,
Executive Editor
If you’ve heard of your local education foundation, it’s probably because you know a teacher who got a small grant from it to pay for a special classroom project or materials that the local school district couldn’t cover. The foundations do a good deal more than that, however, and at least one is becoming a formidable advocate for systemic change in its district.

Authorized by the Legislature in 1984, education foundations are meant to provide a way for a county’s business community to get involved in its public schools. Most of the 60 education foundations that operate in Florida are small. All raise and disburse money for initiatives that tax dollars don’t fund: Grants for classroom projects; teacher awards and training programs; literacy and reading programs like those in Miami-Dade, Flagler, Okeechobee, Orange and other counties that have bumped up students’ reading skills; student scholarships; and special programs like Enterprise Village in Pinellas County, a group of mini-storefronts where children come to learn how business works, role-playing the financial operations of (actual) companies ranging from banks to restaurants.

Foundations raise more than $45 million annually for such efforts, and more than 1,000 business and community leaders around the state serve on their boards. An umbrella organization, the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, convinced the Legislature in 2000 to create a matching grant program that has funneled another $14.5 million into the schools.

Business contributions aren’t always financial, however. In Duval County, volunteers from the human resource departments of some major Jacksonville businesses, including Blue Cross and Wachovia, are conducting training sessions for school personnel on customer service skills. “Sometimes we provide an avenue for business investment that is more than dollars, but equally powerful,” says Mary Chance, the executive director of the consortium. [www.cfef.net]

The foundations welcome involvement; participation can range from volunteer hours to financial donations — small-business people who sometimes feel overshadowed by big corporations can still contribute time and/or money. This year, of course, both are needed like never before.

The business/school connection is essential to the economic health of a community. Businesspeople who get involved with education foundations better understand the challenges schools face. And they can better communicate to the school system their perspective as one of the system’s most important customers. For at least another decade or so, six of 10 jobs in Florida won’t require a college degree, and K-12 schools will largely determine the quality of the local labor force.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort by an education foundation in Florida is an initiative by the Pinellas County Education Foundation. In a white paper called “Students First — A Case for Change in Pinellas County Schools,” the foundation outlined the dimensions of a crisis: Some 62% of the county’s high schools are “dropout factories” — schools where a majority or near-majority of children who enter the ninth grade don’t graduate. Other statistics: Some 35 of the nation’s 50 biggest school districts have better graduation rates than Pinellas. Nearly 70% of the district’s students performed below grade level in reading in 2006-07.

To improve the schools’ performance, the foundation is pushing two broad concepts: One, a re-emphasis on career and technical education modeled after the program introduced by state Sen. Don Gaetz when he was superintendent of the Okaloosa County schools. By keeping the tech students in their regular schools, Gaetz’s CHOICE program removed the stigma attached to career and technical education as a “less-than” option. And it made technical education relevant by giving students real-life job training and graduating them with nationally recognized certificates. Local businesspeople help design and teach the training programs. “An employer may or may not have a clear sense of what a high school diploma means these days,” says the Pinellas foundation’s executive director, Terry Boehm. “But he knows exactly what it means if a prospective employee has a Microsoft certification.’’

The foundation also is pushing decentralization of school management, with principals given control over hiring and their schools’ budgets. By driving decision-making to the school level, Boehm says, principals can better take advantage of teachers’ strengths, using methods and curricula that work best for that school’s students rather than simply following directives handed down from the district. School-based management is an “economic necessity” if schools are to run more efficiently, Boehm says. “How can a principal help control costs if she doesn’t know what her school’s light bill is?” he asks.

On the “heart” side of reasons to change, Boehm says, is the loss to society incurred when a student gives up on school. On the “wallet” side is the loss of some $4,000 in per-student funding from the state, and the additional costs that dropouts impose in terms of increased social services, jail and lower earnings. One calculation, says Boehm, reckons that if the male student dropout rate could be reduced by 5% a year, the state would net $500 million a year.

As it has stepped from a support role into advocacy, the Pinellas foundation has relied on strong, well-respected business leaders on its board who have helped marshal community support — and who also made sure that the Case for Change was part of the discussion during recent school board elections and the hiring of a new superintendent, who supports decentralization. This month, the district will release its strategic plan for implementing site-based management.
There’s a ways yet to go. The effort will require a long-term commitment from the school board and lots of training for a new generation of principals. And not everybody is welcoming it with open arms. Boehm advises other foundations to “tread lightly” if they decide to step into the advocate’s role. “You have to be focused and tenacious, and you have to be data-driven.” He’s confident that school leaders and the foundation can sustain the effort, and he knows the effort is needed. “We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.”

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