College & Workforce Readiness

Getting Businesses Involved in Schools: What’s the Secret Sauce?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 29, 2017 4 min read
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As schools all over the country try to figure out how to do a better job getting students ready for the world of work, one Minnesota high school seems to have cracked a key piece of that code: It has persuaded 200 businesses to help.

Burnsville High School, a 15-mile drive south of Minneapolis, has been ramping up its focus on career readiness, echoing a theme that’s high on the radar of high schools nationwide. It has excelled at something many schools struggle with: getting employers to participate meaningfully in creating courses of study and supplying their own experts to help teach students.

The sheer number of its business partners allows the school to offer a wide range of programs. With support from a local hospital, students can earn credentials as certified nursing assistants. They can master automotive technology, broadcast journalism, personal finance, and other skill sets. In many cases, adult employees from these sectors work side by side with them in their schools.

“Our businesses are looking for their future workforce, because the baby boomers are leaving,” said Kathy Funston, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and pathways. “We think we have something we can partner with them on. It will help them, and it helps our students explore ideas for future careers.”

Burnsville has had some powerful advantages in offering such a wide variety of programs. In 2015, its school district persuaded local voters to approve a $64 million bond to renovate and expand its building, and a levy that provides $25 million, over a 10-year period, for technology. Those funds, along with support from business partners, allowed the school to add more than 150,000 square feet of space with state-of-the-art technology.

The community that approved those expenditures isn’t a wealthy or privileged one. Half of the students qualify for subsidized meals, and more than half are students of color. But Funston said that district leaders won support for their “pathways” model—with its accompanying spending—after a series of conversations with community leaders.

“Any community can do this,” she said.

Burnsville High has another unusual asset: a staff member dedicated to recruiting business partners. Funston says she spends 80 percent of her time building and supporting those relationships. Two years ago, the school had 30 business partners.

Reorganizing its course offerings—"blowing up the traditional departments,” as Funston calls it—enabled the school to work with employers to offer students a very different approach to their studies.

When students register for classes, they don’t see course lists by department, but by career cluster and pathway. The idea is to help them build cohesive schedules of electives that encourage them to think in a “future-focused” way, Funston says.

The school developed a video that offers students and parents an easy introduction to the concept. A one-page flyer outlines the four broad career areas in which Burnsville has organized its courses of study: arts, global communications, and information technology; design, engineering and manufacturing technology; business, management, and entrepreneurship; and health sciences and human services. Students then use the more in-depth course catalog to choose classes.

Within each of those areas, students can build course sequences in various pathways. They don’t have to “declare” a pathway, or be locked in, Funston said.

One pathway in the arts, global communications, and information technology area is broadcast journalism. The high school persuaded its local city-owned cable television station to set up shop on its newly redesigned campus, so students work with the station’s employees to produce shows in a real television studio, Funston said.

In the information-technology strand of that same career area, Best Buy sends a member of its Geek Squad to campus three days a week to work with students as they pursue certifications in computer maintenance and networking. The technology levy provided Chromebooks to all Burnsville students, so the Geek Squad staffer oversees students as they perform repairs on those devices, Funston said.

“The students are running a business,” she said. “They take tickets for the repairs from their peers, and do the repairs themselves, if they can, or use the support of the Geek Squad if they need it.”

A group of local car dealerships has financed the installation of an automotive repair and body shop. Students in that program perform repairs for district and school employees, generating funds that support the program, and help students buy their own tools. The high school plans to expand the program from engine and body work to other parts of dealerships’ operations, offering students experience in sales, finance, and accounting, according to the Minnesota Star-Tribune.

The idea behind Burnsville’s approach isn’t necessarily to send students directly into the workforce after graduation, although some have chosen that option, Funston said. The district encourages all students to earn at least a two-year degree, she said. But there are many ways to reach that goal, she said.

Photo: Burnsville High School seniors Fiona Chow, left, Garrett Riedesel, center, and Josh Johnson work on designing an augmented reality sandbox during an engineering class in Burnsville, Minn. Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.