Back in 1991, maybe 200 businesses were signed up to help bolster Tulsa Public Schools, doing so through employee volunteer efforts and fundraising.
Now, the district boasts more than 1,300 such partners, said Susan Harris, describing how the Tulsa chamber's Partners in Education program has grown since she joined the chamber in 1991.
"We really tried to get more faith-based groups, retail and small-businesses involved," said Harris, senior vice president for education and workforce with the Tulsa Regional Chamber. "There weren't enough large businesses to give every school a big business partner. They simply weren't out there."
The Partners in Education program began in 1983, then known as Adopt-A-School. Initially, most partners were large businesses and corporations.
Thirty years later, the program is perhaps best defined by its flexibility.
"Our schools have needs that are small and large," said Chris Payne, director of public information for Tulsa Public Schools.
In each partnership, principals work closely with the partnering organization to figure out how best to help students.
Results can be surprising.
Tasha Johnson, principal at Gilcrease Elementary School, observed that many of her students had a specific need this winter.
"When you think about what a school needs, you wouldn't think about socks," Johnson admitted. Yet, "in a community where the majority of kids walk to school ... I see a majority of bare ankles," she said, adding, "kids need to be warm when they walk in."
She shared her observation with one of the school's partners, Capital One. "They got on it in a big way," Johnson said.
An employee sock drive led to delivery of stacks and stacks of packaged socks, about 4,000 pairs total, Johnson said.
"The kids were so excited. It was amazing just to see the generosity of an organization as big as Capital One."In the past, schools often looked to partners for financial support, Harris said. But "now it typically is, we need volunteers to come in and read in small groups, to come in and tutor."
COURTESTY OF TULSA PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Purposely, the chamber has not set any kind of minimum levels of giving.
"We've really resisted setting a certain level of expectations for everybody because we're afraid then we'd lose some of the benefits that some of these partners so creatively manage to provide," Harris said.
Johnson described how popular the outreach program is with children, particular the "lunch buddies" program where volunteers visit the school to share a meal with a student. One boy asked her, "How do I get a lunch buddy? I have more than two dollars," Johnson recalled.
"It just really broke my heart. Although we have quite a few lunch buddies, we do not have 400 lunch buddies. I wish I could have one for every child."
Alison Anthony, director of strategic outreach for Williams Cos. and president of the Williams Foundation, said the company works closely with KIPP Tulsa, an open-enrollment middle school that's part of the national Knowledge is Power Program.
The energy infrastructure company likes "to think about the whole picture," Anthony said. "How can our involvement make it better?"
The company takes a rigorous approach in evaluating how best to help, Anthony said.
"We do ask them, how are your scores? Are you getting the impact that you want? It's not because we want to tell them how to do your job. ... We want to partner with them to help fund the things that seem to be making the most difference," Anthony said.
Other partnerships involve donations which can be used as treats for students or even teachers.
Now, "we're trying to get partners to focus on things they can do to reduce the dropout rate," Harris said. "It's the first time we've tried to get them focused from our end." But the program has already contributed to many lasting relationships, Payne said. "What almost always happens is these employees and these companies get in and realize this need is pretty deep. There are a lot of hands-on ways they can get involved and really, really make a difference," Payne said.
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