College & Workforce Readiness

Outside Groups Build Bridges Between School, Business

March 25, 2015 3 min read
Myles Taylor, left, ties a tie for fellow student Maliak Peters at a career fair organized by Academies, Inc., which was held at Philadelphia’s convention center. The teenagers were preparing for a “Dress for Success Relay.”
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When it comes to collaborating to shape career and technical education programs in schools, educators and businesses don’t always speak the same language. To fill that need, a growing number of third-party entities have formed to bridge such communication gaps in their own communities.

In Philadelphia, for example, the nonprofit Academies Inc. enlists local businesses to help implement the career-academy model in schools, said Constance Majka, the organization’s director of innovation and learning. “Good intentions don’t always translate into an effective outcome,” she said. Having Academies Inc. as a single point of contact for employers helps them form lasting partnerships with schools and avoid repeating mistakes, she added.

By providing orientation for both sides, businesses learn they shouldn’t show a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation to children, and teachers learn how to support business partners in the classroom, said Ms. Majka. The structure also keeps teachers from relying on the same businesses or business partners over and over again for classroom collaboration.

“Educators are probably the worst communicators to business, trying to explain to [businesses] what we are doing and what we want to do,” said David M. Kipphut, the deputy of career and technical education for the Philadelphia school district. Trainers from Academies Inc. have taught Mr. Kipphut to understand the mindset of businesses, and to be more focused and clear.

Since expectations can differ, there can be trust issues initially in forming partnerships. “When we connect students with a job opportunity, we want the student to learn and be productive,” he said. For example, a student in a health program working in a hospital should not be shredding paper in a records office. Developing a learning plan that outlines the competencies a student is expected to gain—and that is signed by the employer—can help avoid that pitfall, he said.

Staying Committed

Academies Inc. matched Nelson J. Shaffer, an official with a local engineering company, with Abraham Lincoln High School in North Philadelphia, where he provides executive coaching for the principal and mentoring to students. Mr. Shaffer, the executive vice president of the Pennoni Associates engineering firm, puts in about 10 hours a month at the school and said he is committed to volunteering for the long haul.

“The business community needs to be involved in the education system,” he said. “It’s one thing to contribute money, but money isn’t going to cure the disconnect.”

Sometimes employers are asked for their expertise, but when plans and priorities change, the projects never get off the ground, according to Academies Inc. For example, a few years ago an automotive advisory committee in Philadelphia met for months making recommendations for a new diesel mechanics program only to have the school reform commission grant control of the school to a charter management company and not adopt the program, according to Albert J. McLaverty, the organization’s associate director of industry organizing.

Staff members at Academies Inc. tried to assure committee members that their work was appreciated and steered them to another project. Mr. McLaverty said the long-term nature of the volunteer commitments allows the agency to encourage continued participation despite setbacks.

Through Academies Inc., Frank C. Fesnak has arranged for local business owners to come into the Roxsborough High School classroom in North Philadelphia, where he teaches a business and technology course. “It’s fascinating to [students] to have somebody real explain what it’s like to run a business every day,” he said. His students practice networking with employers, giving their “elevator speeches” and handing out personally designed business cards. “It forces students to think about themselves and the skills they bring to the market,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Nonprofits Link Businesses to Career-Tech Programs

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