Creating meaningful business engagement in education in Nashville

Connie Williams has been PENCIL Foundation’s executive director since 1999. PENCIL is a non-profit agency that links community resources with Metro Nashville Public Schools to help young people achieve academic success and prepare for life. Williams was formerly the Director of Shared Information Services for Deloitte & Touche. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member for the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. In this guest article, she writes about how PENCIL Foundation has helped created more meaningful relationships and partnerships between the business community and Nashville's public high schools. Williams will be a featured speaker at the Ford Next Generation Learning Hub Nashville Study Visit, March 8–9, 2012. While Nashville businesses have a long history of positive relationships and successful experiences working with schools as PENCIL Partners, most of those positive experiences had been with middle and elementary schools. Prior to the Academies of Nashville, high school partnerships tended to be short-term and without a strong sense of vision and purpose. There was a clear need to create more meaningful business engagement to enhance high school education.

We understood that to successfully recruit Academy PENCIL Partners, we needed to change perceptions of high school partnerships and build new models for engagement. PENCIL and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce began by working collaboratively to build and develop six industry Partnership Councils. We seeded those councils with passionate and patient friends of PENCIL and public schools. Before recruiting the first Academy Partner, we spent more than a year working through the Partnership Councils to build relationships between schools and business staff. We gave council members an opportunity to work together to define effective partner-school projects and programs.

Our first Academy Partners were drawn from these Partnership Councils, with council leaders and members agreeing to partner with an academy. Next, the Partnership Councils helped us host a series of industry breakfasts, where they shared their early experiences and encouraged their peers to get involved. Creating an environment that allowed members of the business community to convince their peers and colleagues to join our cause was a crucial step in the process.

Working with MNPS leadership, PENCIL identified and targeted key partners to fill gaps and work toward our goal of at least two partners for each academy in the district. Finally, the Chamber and PENCIL provided public recognition and publicity for these early partnerships through news stories, celebrations, and a public signing of partnership agreements.

How have Academy Partners enabled and expedited reform? The answer is simple—the Academy Partners provide “relevance” for our young people's academic experience in high school. Through job shadowing, internships, guest speakers in the classroom, and externship opportunities for teachers, business partners provide context and real-world insight for academy students and their teachers in a new and exciting way.