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Clas$ Act

Author: Bob Ecker
September, 2007 Issue

Investing in education provides both immediate and future rewards.

    The poster on the reception room wall at Walsh Vineyards Management suggests to prospective employees of the Napa farming company that this might be a good spot to land a job. “Are you struggling to find decent housing?” the poster asks, and then refers workers to an agency that can help find a place to live.

    Employee benefits provided by the full-service vineyard management company seem to bear out the hope that Walsh’s employee-employer relations are more than just a bulletin-board housing alert.

    “We have a 401K program,” says Walsh president Tim Rodgers. “About 90 percent of our employees participate. And we have full-family health benefits.

    “Now we’ve added an education component.”

    Walsh Vineyards Management is one of Napa Valley’s largest farm management companies. Its staff of about 100 agricultural workers and 20 administrative personnel provides full-service development and maintenance of more than 2,000 vineyard acres, much of it planted to Pinot Noir, a Walsh specialty.

    Walsh’s workers will plow up your land, plant your vineyard, baby and irrigate it, harvest and deliver your grapes to winemakers and then, finally, prune the vines in advance of next year. It’s a sustainable, full-cycle farming operation. “Any business that manages its resources, like labor, will benefit,” Rodgers says. “It’s just good business.”

    Thus, he explains, a generous pension plan, health care for the workers and their families, and now an education option for their employees’ children all make good sense. “Education is critical, and if education is going to help our employees’ children, some of that will come back to us,” he says.

    Rodgers and his partner, Brian Shepard, support education in both Napa and Sonoma counties, putting up between $25,000 and $30,000 each year. The firm donates time, supplies and funds to Flowery School in Sonoma Valley, where Shepard (a descendant of Jack London) attended elementary school. Money also goes to support Napa Valley Nursery School and 4-H. Now the firm is helping underwrite the tuition at Blue Oak School in Napa, where children of five Walsh employees have been accepted.

    “There isn’t a child out there who doesn’t deserve a good education, and I’ve learned that I have workers who’re interested in sending their kids to a private school,” Rodgers says.

    The mix of altruism and good business sense that causes Walsh Vineyards Management to annually commit thousands of dollars to educating its workforce progeny isn’t unique. Many companies give back to their communities by helping schools directly or donating to programs designed to give young people a boost.

A common vision

    In Sonoma County, Barbara’s Bakery, whose corporate headquarters is based in Petaluma, supports the Petaluma Education Foundation with funds that support all Petaluma area schools, including providing materials for establishing greenhouses and teaching gardens on campuses. Other business supporters for the Foundation’s education programs include Clover-Stornetta dairies, North Bay Construction, V. Dolan Trucking and the Petaluma Chapter of Realtors, among others.

    In Marin County, more than 300 businesses have participated each year in the Marin County School to Career Partnership since its inception in 1997. The program, which operates under the county’s Office of Education, puts business professionals into middle and high school classrooms, where they provide youngsters with a real-world perspective and apply practical examples to academic lessons. Then students visit businesses for a firsthand view of the other world. In some cases, businesses provide financial support for young interns who want a more meaningful work experience than flipping hamburgers during the summer break.

    Ken Lippi, executive director of the Marin program, says enthusiasm for the program by business leaders is extremely positive and supportive. “They do it because it’s helping to build a good workforce for the future,” he says. “And there’s a return in just giving the kids some very good opportunities.”

    In Napa County, Tim Rodgers is finding the cause of education taking up a bigger and bigger chunk of his life. “It’s a new passion,” he says.

    Rodgers’ connection to Blue Oak School began when he and his wife, Shanna, decided they wanted to send their eldest daughter, Mardi, to private school. Blue Oak’s academic program seemed like it would provide Mardi a lasting education and help her develop a love of learning. The Rodgers also liked the fact that the school’s mission statement included a commitment to providing students with a sense of community in a diverse environment.

    “They have a mission to have the school mirror the community,” he says. “None of the other public or private schools we visited expressed a ‘mission,’ [and] it made more sense to us to offer that experience to our children.”

    Mardi enters the second grade this month. Her little sister, Alia, will begin kindergarten at the same time.

    Rodgers expanded his role beyond parent first by taking a seat on the Blue Oak board of directors. Now, personally and through his vineyard management firm, he’s helping the school realize its promise to offer students a diverse environment by offering financial aid to families who might not otherwise be able to afford to send their kids to a private school.

A shared future

    Blue Oak School opened in 2002 and has two campuses: a middle school and an elementary school (called the “Lower School”). The middle school (for sixth to eighth graders) is on Hayes Street just a few blocks from downtown Napa. The lower school (for kindergarten to fifth grade) is housed in the old Washington Primary School site that the City of Napa built on Polk Street in 1909. The building was a school for 40 years, a county office building for 40 years and then stood empty for a decade. Blue Oak restored and modified the structure to give it a modern, fresh face. But inside, the original Douglas Fir wood plank floors and wide staircases tell campus visitors that many generations of kids have gotten their start here.

    It’s an expensive venture to send a child to Blue Oak School. Annual tuition this fall will be $16,900; according to Scott Duyan, who’s head of the school, about half of all applicants seek financial aid. Last year, he says, about 35 percent of the schools’ combined 175 student body were on financial aid, and that’s the case again this fall.

    Blue Oak operates on a $3.9 million budget and, Duyan says, about $724,000 of that is earmarked for financial aid. Some of the money comes from donations and fund-raisers, like an annual wine auction this past year that raised $650,000. Other support comes from parents who pay the full freight for their kids’ tuition.

    “We tell parents: Part of your child’s tuition will go to support financial aid. All of us are helping to pay for the diversity that we offer here at the school.”

    Duyan goes on to say that no single ethnic or income group has a lock on financial aid: “It’s based on financial need.”

    The diversity issue is a powerful one for Tim and Shanna Rodgers. First, they want that environment for their kids. “There’s no doubt my daughters will benefit from this. If you want community values, you can’t do that without diversity on the campus,” says Tim. Second, he continues, what drives the men and women who work at  Walsh Vineyards Management mirrors his own values: “They want the same things we do.”

    Deciding the school’s diversity was a worthy goal, Rodgers convinced partner Brian Shepard to commit $10,000 of company money annually for three years to support Nuestro Futuro (Our Future), a program Blue Oak founded to assist low-income Latino parents who want to send their kids to Blue Oak. They then invited employees and their spouses to a meeting at the company’s headquarters—on company time. A sign read: Are you interested in private school for your kids? If so, come and find out. “About 40 families showed up,” Rodgers remembers. “There was real excitement.”

    Then, again on company time, 30 families went on a tour of the Blue Oak campus. It was one of the largest groups ever to visit the school.

    Twelve families applied to Blue Oak and were interviewed in an assessment procedure that identifies language challenges and special learning needs that the private school isn’t equipped to handle. “We’re not yet big enough to have the resources to help some children with severe or pronounced learning disabilities, severe language limitations, or other special needs that the public school system is more equipped to provide,” explains Duyan.

    Eventually, six families were accepted. One declined because of financial considerations.

    When school doors open this month, five children (now known at Blue Oak as “the Walsh kids”) will take their seats for an education adventure their families wouldn’t have thought possible this time last year. Duyan credits Walsh Vineyards Management and Tim Rodgers.

    “Tim makes things happen,” Duyan says. “He made sure that he or someone or his staff set aside the time and room to meet with the families and bring them to the school. He and his staff followed through with families that applied and helped them all with the application process.”

    “He made clear a path that, for many families, can be very intimidating. And to make sure some of the kids got a head start, he put up the cash so some of them could go to summer school [which was not part of the Nuestro Futuro program].”

    “We wanted our Nuestro Futuro efforts with Blue Oak to be successful, and summer school offered a way to get the families and the children involved early with Blue Oak teachers,” explains Rodgers. “It was also a way to introduce other Walsh Vineyards Management families to Blue Oak. Summer school is a good way to have the kids find out about the school, and the result has always been that they want to return.”

    For Rodgers, the investment makes simple sense. “This is the place to put the money, and I’d rather spend it now instead of using it to pay an estate lawyer down the road,” he says.

Home(grown) schooling

    In Petaluma, Jacquie Perlmutter, marketing manager for Barbara’s Bakery, shares the same far view. “The children, of course, are our future,” she says.

    Several years ago, Barbara’s Bakery made a 10-year, $50,000 commitment to support school-age kids in Petaluma. The money pays for the establishment of school gardens.

    “Obesity in children is a big issue,” Perlmutter says. “We think it’s critically important for kids to learn about where foods come from and what good nutrition is. A school garden engages children to try fresh, healthy, organic foods they’ve never wanted to try. The child who pushed a brussels sprout off the plate will happily munch it in the kitchen garden stir-fry because she planted a seed and watched it turn into a brussels sprout ‘tree.’”

    She goes on to say gardens are natural classrooms. “It’s a real magical and tangible place for learning,” she says. “When children play, work and study in the garden, they don’t even know they’re in school and learning. A garden is an alive, fun space far away from a classroom where changes and growth are easily observed. In the garden, there’s delight, surprise, and something new to discover—just as in life.”

    So far, six schools have gardens: Valley Vista Elementary, Mary Collins Charter School at Cherry Valley, Casa Grande High, Petaluma High, Petaluma Junior High, McNear Elementary and Wilson School in the rural Wilmar Union School District. Of the 17 district schools, Barbara’s has awarded grants to 11.

    At Valley Vista Elementary School, students engage in an environmental curriculum built around the garden. The program is holistic and folds in botany, math, science, literacy, ecosystems, nutrition, cooking and life skills such as stewardship, responsibility, accountability and care. “The kids are lost in that space,” she says. “They’re engaged—playing, smelling, feeling, touching and tasting.” In addition to the hands-on gardening experience, students prepare food from their crops of pole beans, pumpkins and potatoes, as well as lettuce and other greens for the school’s salad bar.

The real world

    The School to Career Partnership in Marin County often moves the learning experience off campus and into the “real” world of business.

    Klif Knoles is general manager of the Marin Builders Association and a member of the School to Career executive committee and board. He says the program reaches about 3,000 Marin students, who participate in internships, job shadows, guest speaker programs, career days and field trips.

    The program grows by about 400 students a year, and the board hopes to eventually expand programs for academically and socio-economically diverse students and to increase the number of participating employer groups. For its part, the Marin Builders Association donates time, money and expertise to the program.

    Knoles estimates the association, through its 1,100 member firms, donates about $30,000 a year to support events, scholarships, industry advisories, equipment and in-kind staff support. “In addition, we’ve been pleased to sponsor fund-raising lunches for the partnership and have raised more than $20,000 to support the program.”

    Larry Brackett, president and CEO of Frank Howard Allen Realtors, is co-chair of the Marin School to Career program. His company, which has 23 offices and some 500 agents working in Marin, Sonoma, Napa, San Francisco and Mendocino counties, provides internships to students in sales as well as all the back-office support functions including marketing and advertising, accounting and information technology. And all the kids are paid.

    “I feel paid internships are absolutely necessary. Otherwise, you eliminate those who might have to earn money for their own spending needs,” he says.

    Brackett’s company also underwrites stipends for students who want to work for nonprofit agencies. His commitment to the program is no accident. Brackett was a second grade teacher for 10 years, and he helped found Big Brothers in Marin County in 1972.

    He admits he’s always had a soft spot for mentoring young people and encouraging education; he also says there’s an emotional return for involvement in the program—and maybe an expression of gratitude.

    “For my inner self, it’s not only a feel-good sense. Part of it is being able to reflect on how fortunate I was to have a good education,” he says.

    Education is the driving force for the Nuestro Futuro program in Napa, where Lydia Carapia says the kind of financial support provided by Blue Oak, with the help of businesses like Walsh Vineyards Management, has had a profound effect on her child. Her daughter, 13-year-old Gisella Carapia, returns to eighth grade at Blue Oak this month after spending most of the seventh grade at the private school this past year. Lydia and her husband, Jesus, receive financial aid from the school for Gisella’s tuition. It’s not free, though. The couple pays $2,500 for its share of the annual fees.

    Jesus has worked at Walsh Vineyards Management for 18 years, first as a field worker, then a driver and, now (after taking some classes), as a mechanic. Still, $2,500 a year for private school is a strain…but it’s worth it.

    “Before, at the regular school, Gisella was very worried,” says Lydia. “When she didn’t understand, teachers didn’t have time to answer questions. The classes were so big, sometimes 35 and 37 kids in a class.”

    Blue Oak, she says, provides the support Gisella needs. And the Carapias already see the difference in their daughter. Before, she was very shy, Lydia tells me. Now she’s more confident, her schoolwork is improving and she even helps the teacher in Spanish class.

    “We work hard—very, very hard,” says Lydia Carapia. “Every penny we get, we have to take care of for the tuition. But we’re so happy. It’s the perfect place for her.”

    And it’s something that makes perfect sense to Tim Rodgers at Walsh Vineyards Management and the reason he and his company are supporting Blue Oak’s financial assistance program.

    “We’re all motivated by the same things,” he says. “We all want the same things, including a good education for our children.”



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