EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions for PENCIL’s Michael Haberman on Public-Private Partnerships, School Leadership, and Building Community

Since 1995, the PENCIL Partnership Program has helped facilitate public-private partnerships between New York City schools in need and businesses interested in supporting education at the grassroots level. The nonprofit organization has branched out in recent years to other urban districts. EWA spoke with PENCIL president Michael Haberman about the challenges that come with the business of schooling, and the critical role community support plays in student achievement.

1. PENCIL conducted a survey which found the overwhelming majority of principals and the business partners believed there had been a positive impact on the campus community. Do you have any measures of impact, beyond those perceived effects?

In each of the areas where we provide support, we have quantitative data indicating our programs lead to an enhanced learning experience. Just one example is a real estate firm that partnered with a middle school to provide mentors to at-risk boys. At the end of the program a full 90 percent of the boys had passed the state’s Regents exam in mathematics, which put them a grade level ahead. Another important element is getting parents more involved. We’ve seen campuses where parental involvement has jumped as much as 79 percent. One school had a 40 percent increase in attendance for parent-teacher conferences.

We are making a concerted effort to focus more on data sets, rather than perception-driven results. It’s important to note that all of the work we do is based on existing research. We know if you can improve parental involvement, if you can help a principal become a stronger leader, and if you use classroom technology in a thoughtful way, student achievement will improve.

2. Your partners offer schools assistance in leadership and management training for administrators. How applicable are a business person’s skills to what a principal needs to know for the “business” of running a school?

The Wallace Foundation had a study which found that the school leader is second only to the teacher in the classroom when it comes to impacting student learning. The principal is the CEO of their school, and they have to do everything a private-sector CEO has to do: balance the budget, attract and retain staff, build morale among employees, parents, and students, and developing a culture of success.

A few years ago, a school in Harlem was getting its fifth principal in five years. The school had a failing grade on its district report card, and teacher attrition was at 25 percent. The new principal knew there was a culture of failure in that building. She knew there had to be a change, but she didn’t know how to do it.

She came to us for help, and we partnered her with Dave Barger (president and CEO of JetBlue Airways, and chair of PENCIL’s board of directors). They set out on a path together to change the culture of that school. It took a while – because change takes time. But five years later, the teacher attrition rate is 3 percent.

3. How much of the partnerships are about cash-strapped schools getting extra funding?

Our program is not a program that’s about money. Our program is about sharing skills and what we consider broad-based expertise. We’re grateful some of our partnerships end up with monetary donations to the schools, but it follows after the expertise and skills.

One example comes from our partner company EMC Technologies. They were working with a terrific middle school. The kids were carrying their work around on flash drives, and they were constantly losing them. EMC had the expertise to build a server where students could store their work in a central location. That’s something the school wasn’t equipped to do, and it would have cost them thousands of dollars.

4. What has surprised you about how public schools operate? 

I was initially surprised at how similar schools really are to businesses. The end product is different, but all the things that go into being successful – strategic planning, strong leadership and an empowered staff – are the same in both contexts.

What’s been surprising to some of our partners is that there are really unique challenges for each school depending on the needs of its students. While everyone is after the same end product – helping students be successful — the input of what’s going to get you to that end product can be different.

5. PENCIL’s flagship operations in the nation’s largest school district, but you have partnerships in Rochester, N.Y., as well as Philadelphia and Baltimore. Other than high-need schools, what do you look for in partnership cities?

The cities we’re in right now outside of New York are actually the result of them approaching us. We’re moving into the next phase of talking to other communities, but all of our expansion has been driven by outreach from other organization. That’s actually the model we’ve adopted.

We’ve designed a number of effective ways to address the concerns that are common to public schools, and we provide our partners with the tools and expertise to get started. But local groups are responsible for running the programs on a day-to-day basis. They know the politics of their community, and they know the philanthropic opportunities, better than we do. I think that’s one of the reasons why PENCIL has been such an effective model.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.