Like many poorer urban school districts, Lowell struggles with a less than stellar reputation and little money for some of the basics of modern education, from widespread access to preschool to the latest microbiology lab equipment.
Three years ago, several Lowell business leaders offered to help, convincing 15 local foundations, companies, and individual donors to each give $5,000 a year over three years to hire a fund-raising specialist to increase support for the city’s 24 public schools. In the 10 months since Susan Linn was hired as executive director of the Lowell Education Alliance Resource Network, or Project LEARN, she has raised $438,000 in grants, including $87,000 for modern microscopes, petri dishes, and other science equipment.
“In Lowell, the business community is invested in an unparalleled way in the success of the schools,” said Linn, who held a similar position in Newton schools, where she says she raised $5 million per year over a decade.
Lowell’s Project LEARN is an example of a new approach to corporate investment in public education, in which businesses move beyond one-time donations that might buy team uniforms or new computers and instead develop more sophisticated relationships aimed at improving education over the long term.
In Lowell, for example, Project LEARN will soon launch an alumni relations program, similar to those at universities and private schools, as a way to build financing and support. Michael Gallagher, a Lowell attorney who donated money to fund Linn’s salary, next week will host a gathering of Lowell High graduates identified as potential donors to an alumni fund.
“Philosophically,” Gallagher said, “I believe that the public schools, particularly in urban areas, are absolutely critical to the future of our community and our country.”
As the math, science, and reading performance of American students lag those in other countries such as China, Germany, and Japan, business leaders here worry about a shortage of educated, skilled workers to compete in the global economy. That is leading them to get more involved in the schools.
In Denver, for instance, educators have partnered with businesses to launch a workforce development program in information technology, biomedicine, and engineering in eight city schools. Local businesses have not only contributed financially to the program, but also help design curriculum, train teachers, and mentor students.
Nationally, support for K-12 education annually has hovered around an estimated 16 percent of corporate charitable donations since 2007, the first year a coalition of chief executives called Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy began surveying the world’s wealthiest companies. In 2013, about 60 percent of the 261 companies surveyed donated to K-12 education. The information technology industry was the most generous, devoting 34 percent of its charitable budgets to public schools.
In “Lasting Impact: A Business Leader’s Playbook for Supporting America’s Schools,” Harvard Business School, the Boston Consulting Group, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation noted that money can help fix problems in schools, but greater business engagement would have a bigger impact.
For example, businesses can collaborate with school officials on education policy, the playbook suggests. They can also help expand successful programs, such as a Texas initiative that places and supports underprivileged high school students in advanced math, science, and English courses. With the support of corporate sponsors, including Exxon Mobil Corp., which gave $125 million, the program was expanded to 22 states after it was found to increase enrollment in advanced placement courses, college admission exam scores, and college matriculation.
Among states adopting the program is Massachusetts, which has introduced it in 70 high schools since 2008. It’s run by the Boston nonprofit Mass Insight Education, with support from companies such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
As part of this initiative, Vertex, which recently moved its headquarters to the South Boston Waterfront, built a 3,000-square-foot science learning lab. It is part of a $1.5 million, three-year commitment Vertex made to support science and technology education in two schools, Boston Green Academy and Excel High School.
Vertex hired a full-time staffer to run the lab: Carl Reid, an adjunct professor of microbiology at Roxbury Community College. This summer, Reid is teaching high school students who are starting advanced placement science classes in September. He also is doing lab work with 16 high school interns who will learn basic techniques, how to extract DNA from strawberries, and the principles of forensic science.
This year, Vertex awarded its first full scholarship to a Boston Green or Excel student seeking a science, technology, engineering, or math-related degree at a state college or university. There’s also a summer internship program that places students in various departments throughout the company, including information technology and research.
“Nothing would make us happier than 10 years from now seeing a student from the program applying for a job in one of our departments,” said Dawn Kalmar, vice president of employee communications and development. “That’s the kind of impact that we want to have.”
In Dorchester, John Winthrop Elementary, a struggling school working to improve its performance, has benefited from about $100,000 in donations in each of the last couple years by Natixis Global Asset Management, a French financial services firm with US headquarters in Boston. The money has paid for classroom technology, an outdoor garden and greenhouse, and social and emotional skills training.
A group of Natixis employees visits every week to eat lunch with students, and others help the school apply for federal grants and get students’ families more involved with programs and curriculum.
“They want to make sure that what they’re giving is making a significant impact,” said Winthrop principal Leah Blake McKetty. “They’re a thinking partner.”Lonnie Shekhtman can be reached at Lonnie.shekhtman