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Commentary: Local business community can fill void as public school funds dwindle

Elaine Liftin is President and Executive Director of the Council for Educational Change in Florida

The proposed federal budget calls for redirecting K-12 educational funds into School Choice. If the budget is approved, public school principals will need to seek out innovative approaches that will improve their school’s performance, attract excellent students and remain competitive. 

At the same time, the Florida Legislature recently passed a budget that cuts funding for public schools, forcing school districts to do more with less.

More than ever before, the business community needs to get involved in helping our public schools develop a culture of excellence and bridge the student achievement gap.

One innovative solution with a proven track record is the creation of partnerships between school principals and business executives. The Council for Educational Change has several executive partnership models that have been effective statewide. Principal/Business Executive partnerships contribute resources to the school leadership to bring meaningful change at a time when public resources are shrinking.

Under this partnership model, seasoned business executives mentor school principals on strategic planning, problem solving, team building, innovative thinking and a myriad of other leadership skills. They also identify and facilitate access to non-traditional funding sources. The Council may provide additional funding/in-kind resources to support the partnership and an educational coach to support the partners in the design and implementation of their goals while creating a process for measuring progress.

A catalyst for change

The partnership provides a catalyst for change, helping principals to overcome challenges that often prevent a school from fostering a culture of excellence. We have seen this partnership model work on several schools in the region, including Tampa’s Monroe Middle and Thomas R. Robinson High. We recently launched a Principal/Business Executive partnership at Lanier Elementary. 

Our goal, however, is not just to transform individual schools but also improve entire districts by creating partnerships in feeder pattern schools; elementary, middle and high schools within a same district. This allows students to consistently receive excellent education as they go from kindergarten through 12th grade.

At Lanier, Principal Rachael O’Dea has partnered with attorney John Giordano, who will serve as the executive business mentor. This partnership is funded by the Phillip & Betty Casey Family Fund within the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. With matching funds from a legislative grant administered by the Council, the partnership will provide $200,000 over a three-year period, to implement a plan designed to narrow a technology and student achievement gap. 

It will also focus on developing student engagement ownership and self-leadership in their own learning process. This partnership was made possible thanks to Council Board Member Gene Marshall, who brought the parties together. Lanier is following the steps of Monroe Middle, which improved their school score from a D to a B with the support of a principal/business executive partnership.
 
During the partnership period, Monroe Middle School served many of the students whose parents are stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. One focus area strategy of the partnership was to support the assimilation of new students and provide parents with additional orientation support and ongoing engagement activities for their students.

Years after the partnership fulfilled its mission, the school’s current principal continues to focus on maintaining a welcoming, supportive school culture with ongoing assimilation activities for all students and their parents.

Creating culture of success

Robinson High also saw significant progress as the result of a partnership between then Principal Laura Zavatkay and New York Life business partners Tom Tooney and George Nichols. The partnership created programs to boost attendance, modify behavior and increase student achievement, with math and reading grades showing significant gains.

The partnership also attracted resources to upgrade the media center to include a flight simulator and other high-tech tools to train our future workforce for the new economy. Robert Bhoolai, current principal of Robinson High values the impact executive business partnerships have had at this school.

These are just a few examples of the impact business executives can make on our public schools when they get involved. We encourage business leaders to learn how to join forces with school principals to improve public education in Florida. Principals don’t work in isolation and have limited resources to accomplish their goals, including giving students the right tools to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce.

Since the early 2000s, the Council, through successful school leadership partnerships, has impacted 282 schools, 16,150 teachers, 259,000 students, 760 school leaders and provided $9.3 million in funding to schools across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties. We envision a broader impact in the Tampa Bay area as we implement new partnerships in our K-12 public schools.
 
Your involvement and support enables us to position local schools as centers of growth and community that are committed to train preparing our future workforce.

Elaine Liftin is President and Executive Director of the Council for Educational Change, a statewide nonprofit organization that focuses on leadership to improve student achievement and address critical education issues. 
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