Connecting Business and Education One Person at a Time

Back in 1820, English author Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.” In 2012, it is still true -“ especially for two Michigan school districts. An education and business exchange program piloted by Livonia Public Schools and Livonia Chamber of Commerce in 1999 has been reborn in the Oakland Schools. The result -“ the gap between what happens in the classroom and what goes on in the boardroom has again gotten a little smaller.

The two exchange programs, which allow teachers and business executives a chance to switch places for a day, are helping educators and business leaders see how interconnected they are, as well as what they can learn from each other. Having these kinds of exchanges is so important for education and business, according to one expert.

“Historically, there has been a huge disconnect between the business world and academia. Any program that can foster understanding between these two cultures is a boon to both,” says workplace expert Sally Mounts, president of Auctus Consulting Group, a management consulting firm. “Business leaders who go to schools can be reminded of the energy and idealism that young people bring to the table. Teachers who spend a day in the business world can be reminded of their role in preparing young people to enter today’s multi-faceted workforce. It’s definitely a win-win scenario for all concerned.”

The link between K-12 education and future jobs is no more evident than in the IT department in Oakland County, Mich.

“I’m 35 people short in the IT department,” says Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, speaking on a March day when he was hosting Paul Galbenski, a high school teacher who was matched with Patterson as part of the Oakland Schools Education Foundation’s Teacher-Business Leader Exchange Program.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson (left), with high school teacher Paul Galbenski.

The program matched 12 teachers with 12 executives for a two-day exchange -“ one in the classroom and one in the workplace. The goal was to give each an insider’s look at the other’s working environment. The Oakland Schools Education Foundation borrowed the idea from the successful Business Teacher Connection program first started in Livonia over a decade ago.

For the Foundation, the program advances its mission of connecting business and education,” says Ryan Bladzik, its executive director. “There’s been talk of having a program like this for several years and we decided to move ahead. It’s a rewarding and enlightening experience for business leaders and teachers.”

First Livonia, then Oakland
Back in 1998, creating a connection between business and public education was the task of a Business Education Alliance committee that was formed to create opportunities for Livonia Chamber members to engage with Livonia Public Schools as a way of preparing students for success in the world of work, says Donna McDowell, administrator of communications and organizational initiatives for Livonia Schools.

Donna McDowell, Administrator of Communications Department & Organizational Initiatives Livonia Public Schools.

“The Business Teacher Connection program first happened in the school year 1999-2000,” explains McDowell. “We tried to move beyond simply job shadowing in the workplace.” The program aimed to help “both participants so that they would grow in appreciation for their culture, their challenges and their work.” McDowell says a key focus was showing each participant “the relationship between work and classroom in order to help students be successful in school and when they go into work.”

Dan West, president of the Livonia Chamber of Commerce, adds the benefit of the program is that it “provides the teachers the opportunity to see what the professional goes through. It helps the teachers who get asked about professional careers by helping them see what the professionals do.”

In that first year, 23 teachers from each Livonia school were matched with Livonia business people. The program was so successful that it became an annual event in Livonia, up until two years ago, when it went on hiatus. McDowell says the school district plans to reinstitute it in the future.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Schools just completed their first exchange this spring, when Oakland Schools’ Galbenski got an inside look at Oakland County government -“ and the ear of Patterson, its chief executive.

Galbenski, a Michigan Teacher of the Year, instructs high school students at the Oakland Schools Technical Campus SE. “Many of the curriculum areas provide credit for national certification in technology. Besides teaching C++ programming, we also teach entrepreneurship. And we are piloting Android app development,” says Galbenski, who’s been teaching for 21 years, with 17 of them at the technical campus.

Teaching is always changing for technical and career education, notes Galbenski. “We provide relevancy for students.”

Providing relevancy that students can translate into sustainable, well-paying jobs that are close to home is also a focus for Patterson. “We have done a deep dive into jobs of the future,” says Patterson, referring to the County’s Emerging Sectors Initiative he created in 2004 to identify the top 10 sectors that would attract and retain sustainable, high-paying jobs in Oakland County. Sectors include:

  • Advanced Electronics
  • Advanced Materials/Nanotechnology
  • Aerospace
  • Alternative Energy
  • Communications and Information Technology
  • Defense And Homeland Security
  • Film And Digital Media
  • Finance, Insurance and Real Estate
  • Robotics
  • Water Technologies

According to Patterson’s website, by the end of 2011, 201 high-tech companies had invested $1.85 billion creating 26,000 jobs and retaining nearly 11,000 jobs since the initiative’s inception.

L. Brooks Patterson’s Emerging Sectors Initiative identified the top 10 sectors that would attract and retain sustainable, high-paying jobs in Oakland County.

Also considered an emerging sector is health care, embodied as “Medical Main Street” by the county. Medical Main Street markets the sector and Oakland County as a destination for world-class health care and medical device manufacturing. In 2011, 13 companies joined the ranks of Medical Main Street with a total investment of nearly $157 million, creating and retaining more than 1,000 jobs.

While serving the county for 19 years as its executive, Patterson is no stranger to the concepts of business and finance. He oversees a $796 million annual budget for fiscal year 2012 and a county workforce of nearly 4,000 full and part-time benefit-eligible employees. And like other savvy business executives, Patterson knows that the future’s jobs in a knowledge based economy, like those in the emerging sectors, require a solid education and skills. “These jobs are good, sustainable jobs that will be here for 20 years. The best thing I can do is to create more jobs in these 10 sectors,” he says, noting that reversing the “brain drain” of young talent from the region is also very important.

Galbenski, a Michigan Teacher of the Year, instructs high school students at the Oakland Schools Technical Campus SE.

For Galbenski, who is already involved with high tech, it’s easy to make the connection between what happens in his classroom and what Patterson is trying to accomplish with workforce development. “We’ve patterned our curriculum by identifying with the emerging sectors like mobile app development,” says Galbenski.

The matches made between the Oakland County teachers and executives, however, were not all about high tech careers and education of the future.

Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch says the exchange program can have a ripple effect. “The quality of education and the quality of communities are tied together. You can’t have one without the other. Those two things are critical for economic development and the well-being of communities,” she says. “Any program that can strengthen that connection will serve the community, the children and the adults in the community.”

Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch says the exchange program can have a ripple effect.

If creating stronger communities is an expected outcome of Oakland’s Teacher-Business Leader Exchange Program, then it’s no surprise that participating teachers came from all grade levels and executives hailed from a variety of sectors, such as government, automotive, accounting, higher education and banking.

As one might imagine, the logistics involved in getting busy executives and equally busy educators together are challenging. But once again, the Oakland program borrowed a best practice from the Livonia Business Teacher Connection. After holding a kickoff event at the Oakland Schools offices where teachers and executives had a chance to get personally acquainted and set up their dates for visits to each other’s workplaces, they then got back together about three months later to talk about their experience.

Having the two “bookended events” was a key to success for the Livonia program, says McDowell. “It was important to have dialogues at a higher level of understanding. It broadens the context,” she says.

Before that meaningful dialogue can start, however, the funding for such an exchange program has to be secured.

In the case of Livonia’s Business Teacher Connection, McDowell said it was funded over the years by a combination of donations, a grant and by including it as part of school budget. “The companies were paying for their employees to participate,” explains McDowell. “We also paid the teachers a very small stipend for attending the events outside of their work day, plus funded a substitute teacher.”

Markavitch notes, “Because it was a pilot year and we didn’t have any donors yet, Oakland Schools funded it. Next year we are hoping to find a business that would be willing to sponsor it.” For the first pilot exchange, she says costs came in around $1,300 to cover food at the two events, printing and substitute teacher pay.

Lessons learned as both sides benefit
So what did the participants learn from the experience? It might be best summed up with the word “appreciation.”

“From the business community what we heard most often was the degree of organization it takes to keep a large number of students engaged, learning, motivated and on task. The business people were amazed at teachers’ skills,” says Oakland Schools’ Markavitch. “The teachers most often said they became aware of the degree of teamwork, communication and collaboration needed in order to move business forward, solve business problems and create vision.”

The feedback was much the same in Livonia, according to McDowell. “Teachers understood why work ethics, communications skills, and problem solving skills need to be developed and they wanted to incorporate them to a greater degree in their classroom teaching. Beyond that, teachers developed an appreciation for the demands placed on employers,” she says. “One of most interesting, consistent comments at the closing event was business people saying ‘I could never do that teacher’s job.’ The business people developed a great appreciation for the multiple needs of students that teachers were meeting.”

Bladzik of the Oakland Schools Education Foundation, says, “As I have talked to our program participants, I haven’t heard a bad thing yet. It’s rewarding for the participants and our big goal is to take their stories and experiences and share them with (the) district and public.”

For program participant Laura Claeys, a partner with Plante Moran, “being in the classroom again was very eye-opening. The kids were engaged, helpful and very energized.” Claeys visited the second grade classroom of Chad Boyd, who teaches at Daniel Axford Elementary, part of the Oxford Community Schools.

“What was most amazing to me was -¦ the Chinese instruction whereby the students interacted with the teacher in only Chinese. I had not witnessed this and was very impressed with their ability to pick up the material so quickly and they were having fun with it,’ says Claeys. “Secondly, the district has ‘reading buddies’ whereby the second-graders read to the kindergartners and vice versa. The students were all very excited about this process, too, and were developing teaching relationships of their own.”

While she got to see the instruction of Chinese up close, second-grade teacher Chad Boyd had the opportunity to attend a leadership conference with Claeys.

“I think both situations are focused on relationships. My business partner looks for networking opportunities and looks to support the clients that she works with. In schools, relationships are extremely important. Students feel valued and work harder when they have a strong positive relationship with their teacher,” says Boyd. “Schools look to build a positive community by fostering great relationships with parents, staff, and other stakeholders. In both places, building strong relationships leads to success.”

The experience was equally informative for Cherie Franges, kindergarten teacher at Grandview Elementary in the Clarenceville School District, who was matched with Derick Adams, vice president at Health Alliance Plan.

Oakland Schools Education Foundation Teacher-Business Leader Exchange Program participants Derick Adams, VP at Health Alliance Plan and elementary school teacher Cherie Franges.

“I think I saw more similarities than differences. In talking with everyone, they all have goals or a plan of what needs to be accomplished each day, much like a lesson plan,” says Franges. “They are accountable for their work and need to document progress or growth much like we do with students. Offices reflect each person’s personality -¦ just like a classroom. The differences were small things; the absence of any work done in glitter or paint, no one asking me to tie a shoe or zip a coat and no bells marking the passing of time throughout the day. It was almost a little too quiet.”

Another second-grade teacher echoed Markavitch’s sentiment about the connection between business, education and communities.

Kristina Lavin of Drive Elementary School of the Arts in the Lake Orion Community School District says about her visit to an architecture and design firm, “The success of the organization relies greatly on teamwork and communication. This is true in education as well. I have noticed the great benefit my students get from me working closely with my peers. We review data and exchange ideas for helping students who are in need. I am able to reflect on my teaching with a clearer eye. This is true of my business leader’s organization as well.”

Dr. Randy Liepa, Livonia Schools Superintendent, greets teachers and business executives.

Lavin was matched with Kirk Delzer, senior vice president of Integrated Design Solutions in Troy. Delzer, who has been “involved in the design of numerous K-12 facilities,” had a “keen interest to see how the students and staff ‘operated’ in this facility.”

Like other business executives in both the Livonia and Oakland programs, Delzer came away with a respect for the many facets of activity that a teacher manages in a classroom.

“The number of learning activities that occurred during the day, from starting the day with a worksheet and discussing it, reading, working on their journals, math problems, writing, going to health class, lunch and recess, to the media center, working on how to tell time, to cleaning up at the end of the day, it was a constant flow of events but, never in a hurried or rushed environment.”

Seeing the benefit of technology in education -“ in this case in the elementary classroom of Kelly Lindsay at Mary Helen Guest Elementary School -“ was witnessed by Christine Cook, vice president of Information Systems & Facilities for Oakland County Credit Union. “I think what is different is how teaching/learning has changed. Everything is done with technology now and the kids are learning so much more, at such an earlier age, than when I went to school.”

Theresa O’Brien,Cooper Upper Elementary and Leigh Byrd, Bright House Networks, participated in the Livonia program.

Perceiving the direct connection between education and business best characterizes the experience of Jennifer LaCross, a seventh-grade math and science teacher at Sarah Banks Middle School in the Walled Lake district. “I found that many employers are looking for people with technology backgrounds and people who work well collaborating with others. These are important things for my students to keep in mind when they choose a career.”

LaCross, who partnered with Sheri Heiney, executive director of the Rochester Regional Chamber, says her favorite part of the exchange was “the opportunity to discuss education and the business world and how we need to connect the two on a regular basis.”

Since the path from high school to college is so important in today’s careers, perhaps it was no accident that a high school teacher was matched with a college president. Regardless, the experience was certainly beneficial for Jeff Love, president, Baker College of Auburn Hills, and Troy High School teacher Trevor Smith.

“We share some perspective. Jeff, as an administrator, has to look at a bigger picture than I do,” says Smith. “I got to spend a very incredible day on Baker College’s campus. I felt a mutual respect that was affirming.”

Participants in the Livonia program share business and education terms.

Jeff Love adds, “Kids today are fundamentally the same as kids have been for eons; curious/bored, energetic/apathetic, boisterous/quiet -¦ Great teachers like Trevor bring out the positive attributes in kids. He is very well prepared and connects the classroom environment to the real world.”

Whatever learning they brought back from the exchange, many of the teachers and business leaders intended to share it with their peers.

For Baker College’s Jeff Love, he wants his staff to know “there is a lot of rigorous and relevant learning taking place in Trevor Smith’s classroom and in the classrooms of many outstanding teachers in Oakland County and throughout Michigan.”

Seventh-grade teacher LaCross says she will share “that we need to keep moving forward in exposing our students to technology and bring more problem solving projects into our daily lessons.”

“Our future workforce seems to be prepared,” was the takeaway of Aly Green, manager of talent development at Automation Alley, who was matched with Jon Vondrasek, teacher at O.E. Dunckel Middle School in the Farmington district.

Second-grade teacher Chad Boyd perhaps sums it up best, “It is just great to get out and see what is happening outside of the walls of the school. The most important thing we can do for kids is to prepare them for the actual world they will encounter when they leave school. Without getting out and seeing what they will encounter, how can we prepare them? The more I learn and experience outside the classroom, the more I can bring back into the classroom.”

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.