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Getting Smart About Education: When The Private Sector Goes Public

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Eight years ago, PS 153 had a 25 percent teacher attrition rate, disengaged student and parent populations, was considered failing by basic measures of achievement, and had five principals in five years. Yet by 2007, the school had an attrition rate of 3 percent, markedly higher school spirit and school participation, and had achieved an A+ on its School Progress Report.

Five years ago, Bushwick Leaders High School was lagging behind in technology, had low parental involvement, and was lacking the leadership opportunities to which the school was so committed. Today, however, the school has a wireless network, a computer lab that acts as a training center for both students and teachers, expanded opportunities to participate in academic challenges and leadership, and -- as any quick internet search will show you -- glowing reviews from students and parents that have helped boost applications by 200 percent.

In the fall of 2009, the principal of Ralph McKee High School realized that of the 150 students set to graduate that year, only 90 were on track. Nine months later, interviewing workshops and job-shadowing programs had been established, a long-term career readiness program had been created, students were learning about networking and business etiquette, and the principal watched 125 students walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.

No, it wasn't a change in policy, funding, or school leadership that transformed these schools. Instead, the catalyst for the transformation of these three schools was the creation of a partnership between private sector leaders and each school principal.

For PS 153, a partnership with JetBlue President and CEO Dave Barger helped former Principal Monica George lower teacher attrition and increase student participation and all around excellence. Through his partnership with Principal Catherine Reilly, Frank Bisignano, CAO of JPMorgan Chase and an alumnus of Brooklyn public schools himself, helped transform Bushwick Leaders High School and shaped the way Principal Reilly leads her community. You needn't be a large company to make a huge impact, either, as Ralph McKee High School's Principal Sharon Henry can attest. Her partnership with Valarie Contrino, a local business owner and President of Contrino Travel, helped the career and technical high school turn around its graduation rate within the school year.

The plight of public education in this country, and in New York City in particular, is a complicated one, with debate raging about teacher tenure, charter schools, budgets, testing standards, and so much else. With principals carrying more weight on their shoulders than ever before, they have been turning to more innovative solutions to meet their challenges, including embarking on partnerships with the private sector. At PENCIL, the nonprofit organization of which I am President, we build and support partnerships between public school and private sector leaders, carefully matching, overseeing, and measuring the impact of each relationship. I am proud to say that we count the aforementioned three schools among our participants, and I am prouder to say that we have facilitated hundreds of similar success stories.

We at PENCIL know public-private partnerships are not the ultimate and only solution to the many challenges facing public education. Forming effective, high-impact public school-private sector partnerships is not easy -- they are created literally one school at a time. But we have proven again and again that PENCIL's model offers a real and proven remedy that is an important part of the solution.