On a map of what’s important in school communications, “relationships” would have a yellow star above it.
To find out how to cultivate relationships that benefit students and schools, I talked to Mary Beth Harris, principal at Blanche E. Fuqua Elementary, an inner-city school in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Harris was chosen 2012 Indiana Elementary Principal of the Year largely on the strength of two long-running school-business partnerships: One with the local hospital and the other with a Wendy’s restaurant.
A little time can produce big results.
Harris’s first piece of advice surprised me: Don’t underestimate the power of a one-day event to yield real and lasting support.
Fuqua and other schools in the Vigo County School Corporation participate in the Indiana Association of School Principals “Principal of the Day” program, typically held each November. The idea is for principals to invite a different business leader — somebody they don’t know – to shadow them through a day of school. Later, the principal shadows the executive.
The exchange — repeated annually at schools throughout the county — weaves a web of understanding and support.
“It builds a stronger community when people have been in your building and know you,” Harris said. “I never plan any special activities for Principal of the Day, but I go into each classroom each morning and afternoon. Shadowing me, they see my staff’s commitment as well as some of the challenges my kids face.”
The business leaders tend to be upper-middle class. Most are surprised first by the academic rigor of elementary grades, and second by the number of children who come to school not dressed for the weather, tired or hungry.
“Often,” Harris said, “good wills and strong hearts want to be a part of what we’re doing here.”
Partnerships make sense for businesses, too.
An administrator at Terre Haute Regional Hospital proposed the partnership three months after his Principal for a Day experience, saying he’d rather invest part of the hospital’s marketing budget in some of the community’s most vulnerable children than advertise on billboards.
The hospital sponsors a back-to-school pizza party and buys a book for each student at Christmas. It buys tickets to the Fuqua Parent Teacher Organization’s Chili Supper in the fall and Fish Fry and Carnival in the spring and Harris has drawings to award the tickets. The hospital provides guest readers to classrooms throughout the year.
For the first three years of the partnership, the hospital released 25 employee volunteers an hour a week for one-to-one mentorships at Fuqua.
For some of the students, their mentor was the first adult in their lives who was college-educated, had a career and could talk from experience about how to achieve success.
The structure of the partnership has changed many times with leadership changes at the hospital, but remains an important part of what makes Fuqua special, Harris said.
Every year each grade takes a field trip to the hospital to learn about an aspect of its operation that connects to their curriculum.
What’s the most popular fieldtrip? A doctor at the hospital buys each fourth-grader a copy of “The Black Stallion” (my favorite book in fourth grade!), then hauls stallions to the hospital grounds so students can see the magnificent animals and question their trainers.
The school also has a longstanding business partnership with Wendy’s that grew out of Harris’s relationship with a Fuqua parent who wanted to help the school. The parent was manager at the Wendy’s restaurant nearest Fuqua.
Wendy’s donates food coupons that Harris offers as incentives for student attendance and achievement. The restaurant also provides the main course for the Chili Supper. Parents and teachers volunteer at the restaurant periodically with a percentage of profits donated to the school. Student art decorates the restaurant.
That partnership is so successful that now every school in the corporation partners with a Wendy’s nearby, Harris said.
“That Wendy’s manager is now a district manager, and it’s been a while since he’s had a child in our school,” Harris said. “We’re grateful that he continues to help Fuqua and other schools, too.”
[pullquote]Both partnerships were born and endure because of Harris’s relationships.[/pullquote]
I can identify.
True confessions: I was still volunteering to run “Fun Night” carnival games at my children’s elementary school when my youngest was a high school junior.
Who doesn’t love a cakewalk? (It morphed into Musical Chairs with candy prizes when serious food allergies made homemade treats suspect.)
The real reason I kept seeking an excuse to return to the school is that the principal and staff always treated me like a valued member of the family. Who’d want to “age out”?
It wasn’t until I swung by the front office to drop off Boxtops for Education coupons for maybe the 12th straight year that I took pause. “Am I strange for continuing to do this now that my kids are older?” I asked the school secretary.
“Don’t outgrow the clip-and-save habit,” the secretary said, alluding to the fact that the coupons are redeemed for school equipment. “We’re always glad to see you. Bring your grandchildren.”
I laughed hard, never imagining that — a few years later — I would become a grandmother who wishes her grandson could attend that school.
Value your relationships. Whether or not they solidify as “business partnerships,” relationships can benefit your school in so many ways for years to come.