Building The Community

By: Geri Zabitz Badler Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Inspiration

Denver’s School Partners Program Does More Than Get Businesses Into The Classroom

Building The Community What do Denver Broncos cornerback Drè Bly, Comcast, car dealer DriveTime and Kiewit Building Group have in common? All are partnering with a local public school to help make a difference in the community as part of the Denver Public Schools Foundation’s School Partners Program.

They’re among some 50 Denver businesses and organizations that help their partner school in a variety of ways, including on-site volunteering, in-kind donations and financial gifts. There are no specific requirements of time or money, just a commitment to make a difference. Partners and schools are individually matched, according to needs and what a business can offer.

As with any partnership, there needs to be chemistry and commitment from both parties. When those elements fall into place, businesses find there are many benefits to their school partnerships. Partners report a new sense of teamwork and often a boost in staff retention. Most of the businesses that began in year one are still with the program, now in its third year, and several businesses have even partnered with multiple schools.

Getting Started

School partnership programs have been around since the 1970s, often as an outgrowth of older “Adopt a School” type programs. In today’s model, however, programs put more emphasis on finding mutual benefits to both schools and businesses, with partners using their unique resources to help improve schools and student achievement.

For Denver, the program launched shortly after Michael Bennet became superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS). He included community engagement as a critical piece of The Denver Plan, his strategic plan to reform Denver Public Schools.

In 2006, with funding from Qwest and the Daniels Fund, the School Partners Program was launched as an initiative of the Denver Public Schools Foundation. The program was shaped by research from the Daniels Fund that identified seven key strategies for successful School-Business Partnerships. The program’s mission is to engage businesses and organizations in long-term, sustainable relationships with DPS schools.

Piloted in the fall of 2006 with 20 schools, the School Partners Program has grown to 60 schools with approximately 50 partners. The program continues to be operated with funding from Qwest. Partners range from very small companies like Sunfire LED, a two-person LED lighting distribution firm that mentors at-risk students at Manual High School, to Fortune 500 firms like Western Union and Comcast. How It Works

Each year, the School Partners Program does an inventory of the needs of participating schools. Prospective businesses are interviewed and matched with potential schools, followed by site visits. Once there is a match, a program agreement is signed, spelling out how the business plans to partner with the school. The school district handles volunteer forms and background checks for those working with students on a regular basis. School principals or other staff work directly with partners to ensure that the relationship is functioning smoothly. An annual survey is conducted to assess the program and make improvements.

Successful Collaborations

Many businesses come to the program wanting to share a specific skill or knowledge with students. Pat Mulhern of Mulhern Engineering was disturbed by the decreasing number of U.S. students going into engineering, and personally contacted the school district to get involved. Mulhern’s firm was matched with Grant Middle School, where his staff is working directly with Grant’s science and math teachers in an effort to spark interest in the field of engineering.

Cable giant Comcast has supported local schools in the past, but they thought a more hands-on approach would give employees a focus as well as a school to call their own. By teaming up with Montbello High School’s broadcasting program, they offer students real-life experiences filming high school sports events. The school receives financial help to purchase much needed equipment. Hundreds of Comcast volunteers also give their time to spruce up the school grounds on their annual Comcast Cares Day each spring.

The development of a new employee volunteer program brought Western Union into the program last summer. Their partnership with the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) was a perfect fit, as they brought international resources to this middle/high school that focuses on global education. Currently, employees are developing a special math curriculum for DCIS based on international currencies. In addition, projects like organizing the DCIS Travel Center and painting the school’s Resource Room have given Western Union some wonderful team-building activities.

However, not all partners are involved in projects that relate to their professional expertise. Kiewit Building Group wanted to work directly with students on literacy. With a company-wide commitment, Kiewit supplies “Reading Buddies” three to four times a week to Doull Elementary School, where employees work directly with students who read below grade level. They have also instituted a number of enrichment programs, including a Colorado state geography lesson and mini-Science Fair. “Our people get just as much out of it as the students,” said Mike Colpack, senior vice president for Kiewit Building Group. “Trying to help someone learn helps us grow individually. It keeps us connected and helps us understand some of the challenges in our community. There’s no better feeling than helping kids improve and learn.”

Today’s students are tomorrow’s work force and community leaders. If they are well-educated, prepared and supported, the city will be a healthy, vibrant place to live, work and visit. Businesses new to town are often looking for ways to connect with the community. DriveTime, a national used car dealership, opened their Denver office in 2007 and wanted to work with a local school. Through the School Partners Program, they partnered with Colfax Elementary School. They collaborated with Colfax’s other School Partner, AVMusic, to collect enough school supplies for each Colfax student to begin the year.

Other partners work hard to make the holidays special for students and their families. With 66 percent of DPS students receiving free or reduced lunch – a key indicator of poverty – providing a holiday meal and gifts can be a stress on many families.

This November, employees from Clayton Fixed Income Services delivered overflowing Thanksgiving food baskets to Cole Arts and Science Academy. Across town, Denver Broncos cornerback Drè Bly and his foundation delivered 500 turkeys and side dishes to families at his partner school, Place Bridge Academy, the DPS school serving recent immigrants and refugees. Last year, Patton Boggs’ Denver law office gave each student at their partner school, Garden Place Academy, a holiday gift and a coloring book, which employees distributed at the school’s holiday party and neighborhood caroling night.

Paying It Forward

Matching a business with the right school is key, but finding the business is often a bigger challenge. Partners with a successful relationship with their schools are often the best form of advertising for the program. Dovetail Solutions, a local marketing and public relations firm, has partnered with Columbian Elementary for two years and has spread the word to clients such as Studley, a leading commercial real estate firm. Studley now has its own successful partnership with Ellis Elementary School, and sends employee volunteers weekly.

Why Partnerships Work

Partnering with a school gives businesses a common cause and focus. More and more employees have established employee volunteer programs; some give employees paid time off to give back. Whether it’s collecting school supplies in September, purchasing small gifts for student incentives or teacher appreciation, or helping with a school beautification project, both parties win.

Says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, “Investing in our kids and education is the best investment we can make in economic development, public safety and the future of Denver.”

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