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VOL. 36 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 12, 2012

Schools get boost from business community

PENCIL, Junior Achievement help better prepare students

By Hollie Deese

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It was just a year ago that Donelson Church of Christ pastor Russ King became a PENCIL Foundation partner with nearby McGavock Elementary School, and the community is benefitting.

About 20 church members offer weekly tutoring to 50 students and worked with Soles4Sole to provide shoes to every child in the school. They provided a $1,000 gift certificate for students to get what they need for standard school attire. They also cook a big lunch for the school’s teachers twice a year in appreciation for their hard work.

“We try to give encouragement and support to the teachers,” King says. “A lot of times our education system gets bad press. But what we find is loving, caring professionals who are doing the very best they can in very difficult circumstances. They are burdened down with an increasing amount of paperwork and regulations, which is cutting into instructional time.”

The PENCIL foundation, founded in 1982, is one of several local programs that pair businesses and other organizations with schools to help provide financial and hands-on support. PENCIL works to pair the 153 Metro Nashville Public Schools with a 777 community businesses.

And while most schools have more than one partner, there are some schools that have none at all.

“We are always trying to recruit for them, but a lot of it depends on location,” says Nikki Baker, communications director for PENCIL Foundation. “If they want to be really hands-on in that school, we are not going to send a business in Antioch to Joelton. It also depends on what they want to do and what their resources are. Maybe the school has a music focus or the business is a better fit with a high school. So there are several factors.”

Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority has worked with PENCIL since 1988 and has partnered with a number of schools, including Head and Two Rivers middle schools and Inglewood Elementary. They provide staff time and resources, along with funding small gift items for special events such as the Mayor’s First Day program. They have even provided reading tutors and other academic support as part of their volunteer efforts.

“We shifted to Donelson Middle School three years ago with a goal to provide a more educational focus that might entice students to think about a career in aviation,” says Emily Richard, assistant vice president of strategic communications and external affairs with MNA. “The geographic location of the school was a factor in partnering with DMS.”

Junior Achievement programs reach beyond MNPS to all schools in 18 Middle Tennessee counties. The goal is simple: prepare these kids for life at work, from learning how to work effectively in groups to budgeting for salaries. A number of programs even aimed to inspire success in the global economy. Not a bad skill to have.

“Our programs start with kindergarten and they go through 12th grade,” says Elizabeth Carroll, program manager for JA Nashville. “There are three main areas where the programs focus: financial literacy, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness. And as you get into the high school level you will find a lot of our programs will lean more toward one of those three areas.”

One program, JA Success Skills, works with teens on resume writing, preparing for an interview and building a rapport with people.

“We have community volunteers who go into the school and teach these programs to the kids and, depending on the grade level of the program, they will go in 5-7 times a semester,” Carroll says. Another program helps students work through the life cycle of a company, from choosing a product or service and selling stock to eventual liquidation.

“This is the key to seeing that our economy succeeds, that our community succeeds, by giving kids the skills at a young age,” Carroll says. “It is never too early to start talking with them about how to be prepared to go into the workforce, how to handle money right. I think it is part of the reason our economy is in the shape that it is. We want to empower young people to own their economic success.”

Community is a big part of what makes these partnerships work, and King says serving the family is the key ingredient to giving the student their best possible shot. That’s one reason they provide one-on-one sessions to teach English to McGavock families. They also host community dinners twice a month that bring in about 75 people from the school.

And now, inspired by the success of their PENCIL partnership, the church is about to provide discreetly scheduled dental care for family members of McGavock students. “Just because a person is having a tough time financially doesn’t mean they are any less human,” King says. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and this allows that. The basis of what we do as a church is based on our love of God and our love for people, so our goal as a church is to show that love to our community. We want to help families. And then we want to help the students and also teachers.”

One of JA’s programs aimed at younger students is JA Biz Town, a fully-functioning mini-city run entirely by students. Through JA partnerships with such as Caterpillar Financial, First Tennessee, UPS, Journey’s, Deloitte, Allstate and more, area fifth-graders apply for a few different jobs, go through an interview process and, once hired, prepare for a five-hour session on site where they take out a loan and try to repay it by the end of the day.

“We have a good alignment with great supporters who have been with us since we started,” says Rachel Dyer, director of JA Biz Town. “It is really working with businesses here in our community who believe that education is important, who understand we need to prepare the next generation to have critical thinking and some of those soft skills that kids need to have when they graduate from high school.”

Running that particular program costs $500,000 annually, so there are a number of sponsorship levels to help reach that goal. Schools that participate are charged on a per-student basis, but there is a scholarship fund to offset the cost for schools that cannot otherwise afford the program.

“The schools do cover about 20 percent of our costs, and the rest comes from our generous donors,” Dyer says. “Our shop sponsors are $10,000 a year, so even if all 14 businesses are sponsored, that is not enough to fully fund our program. So one of the things we have done that has been very successful is working with community partners for JA day sponsors.”

A business will cover the cost of what a school can’t, which is about $5,000 a day.

“This year we have had Wells Fargo sponsor three days in JA Biz Town with a $15,000 grant,” Dyer adds. “So it is great for them to see specific students being impacted by their support of the program.”

Cost is still one barrier that prevents many MNPS schools from participating in Biz Town. So are transportation and time issues. Still, 8,000 fifth-grade students go through the program each year from Sumner, Wilson, Dickson, Davidson and Rutherford, with Williamson County committed to sending all of their fifth-grade students to the program.

“We have some Metro schools who participate, and we are trying to grow that and overcome some of the obstacles they have with transportation and things like that,” Dyer says. “We work with partners to try to alleviate that.”

Many of the businesses and organizations that support such programs as PENCIL and JA see benefits in addition to helping prepare a future generation of workers.

King sees the thanks in the enthusiasm of the children and their families, as well as the volunteers, many of whom are retired but with a newfound purpose in life.

“This ministry has been amazing,” he says. “The encouragement, it has just meant so much to the adults. They are like a grandmother or a grandfather to these little kids, and who doesn’t need a loving grandmother or grandfather?

“They may think they have nothing to offer, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. They have a lot to offer, even in their retirement years.”

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