Come Together to Strengthen Public-Private Partnerships

As students return to school across the country, budget crises in many cities are taking a toll, resulting in crowded classrooms, cut programs and teachers and guidance counselors stretched to the max.

But the fact is that even before this current fiscal crunch, we've long known that schools cannot combat the crushing impacts of poverty alone. In schools with the greatest needs, it's always taken strong public-private partnerships to meet the enormous needs of students who struggle to overcome the challenges associated with intergenerational poverty.

That's the case now more than ever: Public-private partnerships are the only way to weather current financial storms affecting cities such as Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Such partnerships are the only way to ensure that more students in urban school systems don't drop out of school. What's needed is for communities to come together to strengthen public-private partnerships to support schools and students.

Diplomas Now is an example of one such partnership that brings together three national nonprofit organizations:Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development Secondary, a school reform model that improves instruction and performance; City Year's young adult AmeriCorps members who tutor and mentor students and Communities In Schools' trained case managers for students with the greatest challenges. Diplomas Now, which received $30 million from the U.S. Department of Education and $12 million from the PepsiCo Foundation, operates in 39 of America's toughest middle and high schools in 13 cities, typically bringing to each school up to 25 more adults to work with students, teachers and administrators.

That sort of extra people power makes a big difference. One of those extra adults, for example, is Staci Hardy, a social worker at Rhodes Middle School in Philadelphia, where she provides counseling sessions for students facing major challenges, including teen pregnancy, incarcerated parents, and housing instability. "I believe our students have the power and potential to do anything they want to do as long as they don't get sidetracked from the goals they have set for their lives," Hardy says. To keep them on track, she teaches students coping skills, lines up quality mental health services from community resources and visits students' homes to solve problems preventing them from attending school regularly.

Jennifer Wilmot is another soldier in the army of extra adults that come with a public-private partnership. At Rhodes, she works as a Diplomas Now "school transformation facilitator," a fancy job title that essentially means she is the principal's right-hand. One of her duties is analyze which kids have poor attendance, behavior or course performance and then run regular meetings of teachers and Diplomas Now staffers to tackle those early warning signs that a student may drop out of school. Wilmot relates to her students because she once was like them. She grew up in an impoverished single-parent family in West Philadelphia, and her biggest supporters were teachers. "School was the one escape from everything and was my biggest motivation," she says.

Amber Cox works at Grover Washington Junior Middle School in North Philadelphia, where she manages 18 City Year young adult volunteers who tutor students in reading and math, mentor them and get them to come to school every day. Cox recalls earning the trust of eighth grade girls struggling in math and reading. "It took a long time to connect with them, but I was able to do that with time and persistence," she says, noting that after a year, the girls brought up their grades to As and Bs.

In Chicago, this essential public-private partnership has resulted in the creation of new "career academies" at two high-poverty high schools, thanks to a recent $1 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation. The academies at Gage Park and John Hope high schools will introduce students to the world of work and prepare them for college and careers. At Gage Park, for example, about 400 sophomores, juniors and seniors are involved in two career academies: the Academic, Cultural Empowerment Academy, and the Business, Education, Technology Academy. In these small learning communities, students can choose different pathways, including entrepreneurship, equipment technology institute and web design. PepsiCo is planning to bring their employees in Chicago to the schools to meet with students when they get their report cards to discuss how their daily decisions affect their attendance, behavior and course performance. This plan also involves engaging PepsiCo employees as mentors to help students navigate the college and career process and helping teens with interview skills, resume writing and financial literacy.

As the labor market becomes increasingly competitive, it's imperative that private-public partnerships are leveraged to provide students with the support that they need to develop key workforce readiness skills.

The reality is that the current budget deficits in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia are not slowing down the education of young people. Committed staffers full of drive and dedication and private companies concerned about the next generation of workers will help schools nationwide survive financial crises. No one is suggesting it will be easy, but communities must strengthen public-private partnerships as a vital step to bring more resources to high-poverty schools, especially during challenging times.

Robert Balfanz is senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, where he is also co-director of Talent Development Secondary and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center.