On a sunny spring day, a group of Fayette County business leaders and principals from several Fayette County public schools gather in a training room at the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce. They listen intently as the training leader gives each of them a box of 64 crayons and their assignment: to be creative, innovative, and think “outside the box.”
This exercise is not child’s play, but a unique, unexpected approach to help businesses generate ideas about how to get involved with and give back to Fayette County public schools. And this workshop marks the beginning of the newly-revamped Partners in Education Program (PIE), a joint program between the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce and the Fayette County Board of Education. The program provides an avenue for businesses and community organizations to partner with public schools in Fayette County with an aim to enhance the educational opportunities of students.
Joyce Gaglione, Chamber liaison for PIE, says although the program has been around since the mid-90’s, many school and business leaders were confused about how to maximize their involvement. “Some of the businesses thought they could only get involved by giving money, and the schools were afraid to reach out to businesses,” she explains.
So, earlier this year, the Chamber took on the goal of educating schools and businesses on how to approach one another and build relationships.
Peggy Thomas, Owner of Club Z! In-Home Tutoring Service, 2009-2010 PIE Committee Chair, and 2009 Partner of the Year winner, was up for the challenge. “We wanted to stress relationships,” she says. “We wanted the businesses and principals to meet each other and know what they could ask each other for.”
One principal who was particularly proactive in letting businesses know how they could help her school was Erin Roberson, Principal of Peeples Elementary. The school received the 2010 Partnership Award for its support and open door policy for businesses desiring to help its students.
“We made a concerted effort to work with our partners,” Roberson says. “We wanted to make sure the staff was informed about our business partners and knew how to use those relationships in ways that would benefit their classes.”
Roberson recruited teachers and other staff to communicate with their business partners via email. The school even held monthly meetings to let businesses know what they needed and emphasized the many different ways they could help.
One of the areas where businesses can provide the most help and make the greatest impact in the schools is in the area of mentorship. Jane Gough heads Fayette County’s Mentor Program. She’s worked with more than 200 mentors in the past few years and says mentoring relationships make a visible impact on students. “Children’s grades will improve because they feel better about school. They feel better because they know someone is coming out just to see them.”
Sharon Boyer, K-12 Science Director for Fayette County Public Schools, agrees. Boyer oversaw the county’s high school robotics team, which participated in a system-wide robotics competition at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth in March. The students met two nights per week and on Saturdays, working under the mentorship of two Fayette County engineers who helped the students create their “bot.”
At the March competition, the Fayette County team ranked 13 out of 49, beating teams from North Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Tennessee. They’re already gearing up for next year.
“It was too cool,” Boyer says. “My goal is to get enough high school students involved and enough of the community involved in marketing and funding that high school students can take this program into elementary and middle schools and develop feeder schools for the program.”
Boyer also echoes the thoughts of others who say getting the word out is vital to the program’s success. “Money is great, but expertise, you can’t buy. It’s important for students to see adults in the community share their time to help a student, no matter what.”
BaSean Jackson, Pastor of Fellowship of Love Church, agrees. ”You have to be responsible for the health and thriving of the community. A community’s institutions must thrive if the community itself is to thrive,” he says.
Fellowship of Love received a 2010 Outstanding Partner award for its work with North Fayette Elementary School. In addition to providing financial support, the church sent male mentors to the school several times to work with “at risk” students. It also started a chess club to help students learn the game and benefit from positive role models.
“There’s always something you can do,” Pastor Jackson says. “Let the schools tell you what they need. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do anything.”
Gaglione agrees. When asked for ideas about how schools and businesses could collaborate, she has no problem thinking outside the box. “There’s a real need for the strong development of interpersonal skills in our youth,” she says. “And the youth can help adults learn social media, like Twitter and Facebook. They’ll multitask and have it done in two minutes, and you’ll still be trying to navigate.”
The Rotary Club of Peachtree City also received the 2010 Outstand Partner Award for its financial support of various educational programs and initiatives in Fayette County. Due to space limitations, we were not able to interview them for this article. If you’d like to participate in the Partners in Education program, contact Joyce Gaglione, Chamber Liaison, at 770-461-9983.