Imagine a public school system in which large numbers of high school students take advance-placement (college level) classes, nearly 90 percent graduate from high school, and 60 percent (nearly twice the national average) go on to graduate from college. Wouldn’t the rest of the country want to emulate whatever it’s doing?
It turns out there is such a school system: the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools (MCPS). “Sure,” you might say, “a suburban school system, probably high on the socioeconomic scale—no wonder it can accomplish these results.”
Wrong. Over the past 12 years, while MCPS managed a dramatic increase in student achievement, its demographics were shifting to a population in which minorities became the majority, with a greater diversity of student needs including students at all grade levels learning English as a second language.
How did MCPS do it? Its secret—which it wants to share with the rest of the country—is to tap into the know-how of the business community. Dr. Jerry D. Weast, MCPS’s recently retired superintendent, has explained, “While there are many examples of businesses and school systems working together in the United States, most focus on internships, scholarships and guest speakers in the classroom. While those partnerships support students, we leveraged our business community to support the entire school system as our trusted advisers and mentors.”
Weast set up the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education (MCBRE), through which the school system’s senior leadership collaborates with local business leaders toward the common goal of graduating more students who are prepared for college and careers.
Communities from all over the United States expressed interest in the specifics of how MCPS and MCBRE set and achieved their goals. San Rafael was chosen for the pilot program.
As the vehicle for sharing its methods, MCBRE launched a national nonprofit effort called the 114th Partnership. “Our name is inspired by the 114th meridian, the beginning of the Great Continental Divide in the United States,” its website explains. “We seek to create a place where business, education and foundations come together to bridge the great divides between college ready and not ready; between the classroom and the real world; between business and education.”
The 114th Partnership is working with an organization called The Partnership for Deliberate Excellence, created by Dr. Weast, to build a demonstration “Community of Deliberate Excellence” this year.
“This national effort will teach communities how to leverage the strategies from business, the resources from foundations and the skills and passion from educators to better prepare and inspire students to thrive in college and careers. Both locally and nationally, our goal is to connect, spark and empower business and education leaders around the country,” says Jane Kubasik, former executive director of MCBRE and founder and chief strategist of the 114th Partnership.
The 114th Partnership was looking for the optimum site for its pilot program and, at the same time, the Marin Community Foundation (MCF) was searching for a better way to spur academic improvement in four Marin public school districts.
MCF made a commitment to public education in Marin two years ago, allocating $35 million over five years. “It’s the largest single commitment of private dollars to public grade schools in the Bay Area, and maybe in California history,” says Dr. Thomas Peters, MCF president and CEO. The four districts are those with the largest numbers of economically stressed households, the most ethnic diversity and the most English learners. Children from such neighborhoods have a tough time succeeding in school, and it doesn’t help that their districts get fewer resources than those in neighborhoods that are financially better off. Worse, even the richest districts have recently been squeezed by budget difficulties.
In its 2012 report “A Portrait of Marin,” MCF looked at health, access to knowledge and standards of living in different communities within Marin. The report notes that while Marin is known for its affluence, “careful analysis shows that the quality of life among different groups varies considerably.
Examining access to knowledge, the report says, “Marin County is known for its excellent schools. Yet significant variation exists within the county in terms of educational resources, spending and academic performance. A close look at two of Marin’s public high schools, Sir Francis Drake High School [in San Anselmo] and San Rafael High School, reveals a noteworthy gap between student need and academic resources.”
Drake is 83 percent white; San Rafael, 60 percent Latino. Substantial differences in expenditure per student and teachers’ salaries between the two schools make it unsurprising that 76 percent of Drake seniors but only 46 percent of San Rafael seniors are considered to be college-ready at graduation. The report suggests an agenda for action: expanding access to early childhood education, reducing the high school dropout rate and increasing support for schools serving children from low-income families.
With this agenda in mind, MCF pledged its philosophical and financial support to the collaboration with the 114th Partnership. While the exact costs involved are still being developed, “This project has a value exceeding any dollar amount we can cite,” says Peters. “The value of the time and expertise of our leaders and mentors, teachers, principals and school board members all working together on this grand experiment exceeds our dollar commitment.”
Even before Marin heard of the 114th Partnership, San Rafael City Schools had programs underway that were producing encouraging results in the city’s 12 elementary, middle and high schools.
The district has many hurdles to jump, but it’s running on the right track. “San Rafael is the county’s most diverse school district,” says Michael Watenpaugh, superintendent of San Rafael City Schools since 2007. “Sixty percent of the children are Latino, 50 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 50 percent are English learners. And the district is growing. At the kindergarten through eighth-grade level, we’ve grown by 620 kids over the last five years. It’s our responsibility not only to teach content and teach English, but to have the same high expectations for all our students.”
Working with families, the schools encourage high aspirations. “If you go to any of our elementary schools and ask the students, ‘Who’s going to college?’ every student will raise their hand. These kids are thinking about job career paths. They’re knowledgeable and aware of jobs in a wide range of professions. In a third grade last week, I talked to a student who wanted to be a veterinarian. Her backup plan was to be a singer.”
Test scores are in line with the soaring aspirations. A school’s academic performance index (API) is calculated from the annual state STAR tests. The state has set 800 as the API target for all schools. (The maximum score is 1,000). Data from San Rafael City Schools shows continued steady gains across the district, including evidence of a narrowing achievement gap for many significant subgroups. The Elementary School District passed the 800 mark, with a 22-point gain over 2010. Six schools are above 800, including Davidson Middle School and Terra Linda High School. Both Glenwood and Sun Valley Elementary Schools continue to score above 900, and the remaining six schools are well above 700 and within striking distance of the 800 mark in 2012. The greatest growth in the district was with students of color and low-income students.
“Our year-to-year student achievement gains were a factor in our district’s partnership with Dr. Weast, the 114th Partnership and the MCF,” says Watenpaugh.
Also important in San Rafael’s selection is a long history of collaboration between local business and education. “The business community has a vested interest in our education system,” says San Rafael Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rick Wells. “Today’s students are our future workforce.” The chamber’s education committee provides a number of ways chamber members can get involved, such as an annual chamber event that welcomes new teachers to the school system and a soon-to-be-established program that recognizes and honors deserving educators during the school year on a monthly basis.
The chamber also promotes and supports the School-to-Career program, coordinated by the Marin County Office of Education, through which businesses provide opportunities for student internships and job shadowing experiences. (See “Becoming Work-Ready,” below) As part of the program, participating students are able to earn a work-readiness certificate. “We make every effort to get out as much information about this program as we can. Several chamber board members participate. An example is Laura Bertolli [of Bertolli’s Auto Body Shop]. One of her long-term employees started as an intern,” says Wells.
“In our community, there’s a strong connection between our public schools and our local public and private sector supporters,” says Watenpaugh. “Our district has been educating the children of this community for more than 150 years, and we have generations of families who’ve all attended our schools. Our alumni remain in the community as business owners, elected officials and residents. There’s a sense of history and pride in our local public schools, and with the help of the community, we’re able to maintain and support a wide variety of programs.”
These include HeadsUp, San Rafael City Schools’ public education foundation. Participation and support for the foundation has grown significantly since the state began slashing school district budgets four years ago. HeadsUp funding provides fiscal support for common programs and services at every school in the district; its focus is ensuring equitable programs that will benefit every student, not just students at a particular school. For example, HeadsUp priorities for 2012 include restoring library-clerk hours at every K-8 school in the district; funding 4th and 5th grade music at every elementary school; and making outdoor education available for all 5th graders in the district; funding additional music courses at the middle and high schools; providing additional college counseling support for high school students and their families; and supporting professional staff development to aid in students’ transition into middle and high school.
“We’re stronger together than we are separately,” he says.
The San Rafael system already has strong support from business in the form of money and internships. What Weast and Kubasik added to the formula was to call on national and local companies to share their brain power, professional expertise and best practices.
“The Montgomery County Public Schools have been able to achieve results everyone in the country is striving for,” says Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke, who visited Montgomery County about 18 months ago. “What they did ultimately led to closing the achievement gap and raising the bar, positively affecting all kids.”
One reason for their success, she says, is that Dr. Weast provided the skillful leadership it took to get all stakeholders on board. “Employees, parents, nonprofits, business—everyone has to be involved to ensure you provide all the kids with what they need. Their results have been nothing short of amazing.” She notes that you can get a wide range of people to engage and agree “if they are meaningfully talking and really listening.”
“What we offer is not a program, it’s a systems integration,” says Kubasik. “We sit at the nexus between program and policy group.” The plan is to look at existing strategies and programs and see how they align, treating the school system as a client. “We treat them as professional peers rather than a community service project.”
In all high-performing organizations, there are key tenets, she says. Clarity of purpose and its alignment throughout the organization, as well as employee engagement and well-being, are essential. In the case of San Rafael City Schools, the plan is to clarify and define the district’s core values and get everyone in alignment on how they can be implemented for movement toward a common goal.
As the 114th Partnership continues to share its methods, the results will look different in each location. This is because each community has different strengths and is on a different continuum toward college and career readiness, Kubasik says. “You build a program that works with your own current strengths. You use what you do well to help drive your goals going forward. The premise and sequence will be different in each community.”
Watenpaugh has already achieved the first step—unanimous support for the collaborative effort from disparate stakeholders including the school board, union leaders and school principals.
As one of the collaboration’s first activities, the district is benefiting from the Gallup organization (a member of the 114th Partnership), which has conducted a survey of every employee in the district to identify where there’s highly engaged staff and where there are disengaged employees. “We know through our work with Gallup that staff members who are highly engaged in their work are 70 percent more productive,” says Watenpaugh. “Where we find sites or departments that are disengaged, we’ll consult with Gallup and try to identify how we can enhance and increase staff engagement.”
Another first step was assembling a business advisory group like MCBRE. The San Rafael group, which held its first meeting in February, brings together senior-level school administration and business executives from both national and local businesses including Kaiser Permanente, Marin Sanitary Service, Sodexo, Deloitte, United Healthcare, HansonBridgett, Wells Fargo, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Bank of America, AT&T, Buchalter Nemer and McKinsey & Company. The team was put together with collaboration from the Bay Area Council and the North Bay Leadership Council.
“Educators and business leaders speak different professional languages. Yet, when we meet together and share our respective challenges, there’s great similarity,” observes Watenpaugh. “We all desire a talented and motivated staff that can work together and are interested in how we can efficiently and effectively use our resources and how we create the conditions for continuous improvement that’s targeted at creating and maintaining brand loyalty for our ‘product.’
“As a public school system, our product and brand are defined by the high school diploma,” he continues. “The diploma needs to open doors to a wide range of options for each graduating senior. Whether college or career, the diploma must be the key that unlocks many doors.”
The advisory team learns alongside the education professionals, listening and learning about how they might work together to increase college and career readiness within a school system. Demonstrating how the process works, Kubasik tells how the Montgomery County School System, with the support of its local business community, reverse-engineered college readiness all the way back to the level of incoming kindergarten students. They created a kindergarten readiness standard for preschool daycare. Implementation in a variety of daycare environments including home providers—led to high reading readiness in the public schools, where more than 75 percent of students are now reading by the second semester of kindergarten.
This kind of result is what has everyone so excited. As Peters says, “The key is that it’s a bottoms up model, not some guru from D.C. telling us what to do.” And it works.
Instead of complaining that today’s job applicants lack important attitudes and skills, employers in Marin have chosen to do something about it. Through the countywide School-to-Career Partnership (STC) coordinated by the Marin County Office of Education, about 250 businesses and organizations, from the county’s largest to its smallest, work with students to introduce them to potential careers while helping them learn skills they’ll need for success in the workplace, in school and in life. They coordinate about 500 internships each year for Marin County high school students.
You don’t have to be a big company to have a successful internship program. Ken Lippi, director of STC, says a good example is Bal Claire State Farm, an insurance agency. “Each year it chooses to work with students most in need of mentoring. The kids have intentions to do well but no experience. As interns, they learn strong skills in team functioning, professionalism and follow-through. Their mentors find satisfaction in putting the kids who need the most help on the road to success and a positive future.”
Through STC, businesses also offer students job shadowing opportunities, and STC finds business speakers with special expertise to talk to classes at career day programs. Students who gain skills through STC internships can earn work-ready certification that gives them a definite head start when they submit a job application.
Lippi notes that the Marin County Workforce Investment Board (WIB) is a key partner in the efforts of the STC Partnership. It helps in many ways, such as supporting stipends for students who can’t afford to spend time in unpaid internships. “The high school districts are also very supportive, both in principle and financing,” says Lippi. “They share the cost of staff liaisons at the high schools. In a tight budget year, this is a measure of the value they see in this program. We’re very grateful for their support.”
It’s the same with Marin businesses. “We couldn’t do this without the business community,” says Lippi. “Even in times when we thought businesses would hunker down and focus on the bare essentials, Marin businesses never lost sight of the value of building a workforce for the future. We’ve seen no drop-off in our support from businesses, local government agencies and community organizations.”
“Businesses can be truly engaged partners,” says Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools. “It matters that students have necessary skills.”
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