Patti Wenzel

Businesses + Schools = Successful Students

By - Nov 24th, 2010 04:00 am
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Business and education mix at a Rube Goldberg competition. Photo courtesy MPS STEM Partners.

One day after MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton said that Milwaukee businesses and schools need to partner together to improve the success of students, business leaders sat down to discuss how that can come to fruition.

Teach for America Milwaukee director Garrett Bucks  and Schools That Can Milwaukee Co-chair Abby Ramirez brought the education side to the table while Mike Mervis, Vice-President of  Zilber, Ltd. and Eileen Walter, Director of Global Community Relation at Rockwell Industrial Automation discussed the business perspective on education.

The discussion was hosted by TEMPO Milwaukee, a professional women’s networking group. The women are in leadership positions at businesses and non-profit organizations through Southeastern Wisconsin and feel education is one of the most important issues facing Milwaukee’s business community.

Although the mood was decidedly positive, all of the panelists agreed that the partnership between businesses and schools desperately needs to be rebuilt, and that this discussion is long overdue.

“The business community doesn’t get it,” Mervis said. “We’re not actively engaged or we wouldn’t be facing this crisis.”

He pointed to the fact that 40 years ago there was a strong business/education partnership, when Milwaukee was the “machine shop” of the U.S. But as companies left, the focus shifted away from working with the schools and to the bottom line.

“Milwaukee is at a disastrous tipping point and we don’t have any more time to solve this. The (Milwaukee) school board is a disaster and the new superintendent knows he has very little time. Business has a huge vested interest in education and needs to become involved.”

It may sound cynical, but Mervis equated students as a product that businesses need to survive. Without involvement in education by business, the “human product” will be inferior and businesses will go elsewhere to find what they need.

With that in mind,  Walter touted her company’s direct involvement in education through MPS STEM Partners. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education) gets Rockwell employees into MPS schools  to encourage and mentor students in these four highly-coveted skill areas, which also helps build a strong business/community partnership.

Eileen Walter’s explains that business/education partnerships can be fruitful for both sides. Photo by Patti Wenzel

“Our current leadership wanted to make a difference and we looked at where the need for skills was,” Walter said. “That’s when we realized the kids in our own neighborhood couldn’t work for us. Rockwell needs diverse, college-ready students.”

So Rockwell went to the high schools and middle schools in MPS with “Project Lead the Way” and “First Robotics” programs, working to elevate not only the STEM subjects but also literacy and soft job skills.

While there wasn’t agreement as to whether “business gets it,” all four of the panelists agreed that all our schools need good leadership both in and out of the classroom– and that includes involvement from the business community.

Ramirez said the time for talk has passed; that business leaders need to be engaged by visiting high performing schools, becoming a mentor and putting an end to the dialogue of destruction that surrounds our schools.

Bucks added to Ramirez’s point, encouraging the gathered business leaders to go into a high-performing classroom in a school that is not completely on board with reform,  and then to visit a low-performing school to witness the differences first hand.

Mervis was even less formal, reminding all of us that the public schools are our schools and we can walk in at anytime and ask for a tour.

“Just get involved. The first step is to do something. Inertia has brought the system down and now we need to use inertia to turn it around.”

Categories: Business

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