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Worcester schools plan new model for business partnerships

December 03,2018 04:20

WORCESTER – Never shy to highlight the Worcester public schools' fruitful relationships with local businesses, Superintendent Maureen Binienda has an ambitious – and possibly unprecedented – plan to create a new model of private-public partnerships ...


WORCESTER – Never shy to highlight the Worcester public schools' fruitful relationships with local businesses, Superintendent Maureen Binienda has an ambitious – and possibly unprecedented – plan to create a new model of private-public partnerships next year.
In an effort to foster closer ties with their benefactors and better organize the way they seek assistance from the business community, Ms. Binienda wants every school in the district to establish a partnership with a business in its area. The concept is already playing out on a larger scale with the district’s existing quadrant sponsors – Unum, Fallon Health, UMass Memorial and Hanover Insurance – which provide requested funding and other support to schools within their sections of the city.
Some companies also already have partnerships with local schools, like Unum, which has been a longtime benefactor of South High Community School.
But finding individual businesses to match with each of the district’s 45 schools may be a more difficult task, one which Ms. Binienda said has not yet begun officially. She is also still working out the details of how those relationships would function. One of her main guidelines is that the partnerships not be based solely on the exchange of money.
"It goes deeper than that," she said. "It’s really a partnership. The kids get to know the businesses; the businesses get to work with the kids. It’s not just about one-time financial help. It’s about developing relationships over time."
Especially from the schools’ perspective, she added, the benefit of the approach will be to let students know "there’s somebody in the community who cares about their school and them."
An "unprecedented" approach
While plenty of schools around the state rely on private donors to pay for things their publicly funded operating budgets can’t afford, Worcester’s proposed model would appear to be unique in Massachusetts. The Springfield school system, similar in size to Worcester's, doesn’t have a school-business matching model, for example, according to spokeswoman Azell Cavaan, nor does the next largest district in the region, Fitchburg, said its acting superintendent, Robert Jokela.
"I’m not aware of any (districts that do it)," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "There are districts with schools that have partnered with businesses. But what Worcester’s trying to do, in both substance and scope, is unprecedented in my experience."
Mr. Koocher added he’ll be closely watching Worcester’s experiment, which he believes at least from a policy standpoint appears to not have any glaring drawbacks.
If it works, he added, "that’s something I’d want to present to our membership as an example" of a potentially replicable private-public partnership for them to consider doing as well.
Mr. Jokela, however, said the approach may not work for all districts, particularly those like his that don’t have a large business base from which to draw.
"Geographically, and from a scale perspective as well, I’m not saying it can’t work, but with a Worcester or Boston … it’s different," he said, referring to the large business communities in those cities.
"A great opportunity"
Ms. Binienda said the school-business partnership model makes sense from an operational perspective, particularly in a district like Worcester that has so many needy schools that make so many appeals for outside help.
"I really think some businesses have been getting too many requests" from too many schools, she said. "Some are going to have to say no, and I know they don’t want to."
Ms. Binienda’s plan is to put an end to that overlap by restricting schools’ requests to their partner businesses. "We’d make it be more organized" that way, she said, and in theory more effective.
Just as important, she added, the setup would allow the schools and businesses to become more familiar with each other and each other’s needs. That’s been the case at South High, where Unum now provides an annual donation from which the school administration can draw for various needs throughout the year.
"I think it’s a much better approach. You really get to know that school," said Steve Joseph, an executive at the insurance company, which he reported has given around $1 million worth of support to South High since 2015. "We’re able to take our dollars and make a much bigger impact."
At South High, Unum has helped fund scholarships, field trips, employee events and other one-time needs, and has provided volunteers to help students personally with services such as helping them fill out their college applications.
"If we didn’t have Unum, I don’t how we’d fund all these initiatives," said South High principal Jeff Creamer, who added he hasn’t once had to make a request of the company since he started the position last summer, thanks to Unum's large one-time donation. "It makes our lives really easy."
The return for Unum, according to Mr. Joseph, has been a surprising number of South High grads going on to work for the company after college. Out of the 40 people currently in Unum’s selective professional development program for new recruits, for instance, three are from South High – a relatively high number, given the program draws from candidates nationwide, he said.
"The payback is just great," he said of Unum’s partnership with the high school. "I think it’s a great opportunity for both sides."
Spreading the wealth
Mr. Joseph also believes it’s not just large companies like his that would be interested in such an arrangement. "There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm" in the city’s business community to start similar partnerships, he said. "I think there’s absolutely an ability to do (this model districtwide)."
"I don’t think it will be difficult at all," said Tim Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. He said there are plenty of local companies interested in helping to establish a "well-educated, well-motivated workforce" in the region that will replenish their own businesses in the years to come.
Whether the district can ensure all of its schools have the same level of access to private resources is another question, but so far Ms. Binienda said "the impact of the big four (quadrant partners) has been pretty equal" across the system.
"I don’t think we’d look at it as an equity thing," she said.
Her tentative plan, she said last week, is to announce more about the initiative in the spring.

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