We in business rarely have any particular expertise as educators, but many of us know that something must be done to help our challenged schools. Governor Sandoval has declared the state’s leading challenge is our unacceptably low high school graduation rate. So how does a company that wants to help Nevada schools and students get involved in a way that brings real results?
One way to confront that challenge is to shift from traditional philanthropy to a corporate social responsibility program of targeted community investment. As an organization, we sought to help at-risk youth graduate from high school while avoiding becoming involved in the politics of education reform. Our goal was to be in the classroom, not in the public arena.
In considering a path forward, my own life experience provided no guidance, as my school was a mirror of the fictional “Mayberry Union High School” found in the “Andy Griffith Show.” Education experts that we consulted in Washington DC and New York City cautioned against getting caught up in what they called a “Race to Nostalgia” and told us to forget everything we knew about education prior to the passage of No Child Left Behind legislation.
A fortuitous introduction to Elaine Wynn and Susie Lee of Communities in Schools saved us from wandering about aimlessly. They introduced us to the concept of providing “wrap-around” support for at-risk schools, where trained counselors can meet the daily challenges faced by the students, and thus allow teachers to focus on classroom instruction. We are now in the third year of our sponsorship of the Marvin Sedway Middle School in North Las Vegas, and the Adobe Middle School in Elko and are extremely pleased with the results. These two schools are showing improvement in almost every metric. It is exciting to visit the campus and feel the new and positive energy.
The Communities in Schools program in Nevada is simple. They station on-campus counselors at the school who then coordinate a variety of public and non-profit services to help at-risk students. These services range from meeting the nutrition needs of students, tutoring, to help with behavioral or mental health issues or simply providing a safe place to complete homework every day. The time I have spent with the counselors has been invaluable to me and it has shaped our endeavors with other non-profit organizations working in the field of education.
The model proven across the nation by Communities in Schools makes them a fantastic partner for businesses looking to affect positive change, but lacking the expertise to do so on their own. Sponsoring a school can be done at a reasonable cost. A sponsorship provides options to engage with your school in a variety of other ways. For example, in addition to providing Sedway with added computers, we have partnered with Nevada Ballet Theatre to give the students their first experience with fine arts. This year we will again be hosting students at the Nutcracker performances. Last year a student wrote to tell me that the Nutcracker “was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in life.”
With so much need in our state, finding a place to begin can be difficult. We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once. Rather than wait for the political process to solve the challenges in our schools, I encourage more businesses to take on a partnership with Communities in Schools. You will bring immediate aid to a troubled school, it will be deeply fulfilling and you will have a much better understanding of the challenges confronting educators in the 21st century classroom. We cannot recreate the school that “Opie Taylor” attended, but we can bring a touch of the Mayberry community spirit to Nevada classrooms.
Michael J. Brown is Executive Director of Barrick Gold Corporation USA.