Enhancing the American Education System

11/19/2010  |  DARRYL ROSSER
public/private partnerships

The educational system in American must be improved, and enhancing educational environments must be central to that effort.  Lack of proper funding and maintenance has resulted in aged school facilities that have not been upgraded to keep up with changing times.  Yet we know that by improving educational environments, we create improved educational outcomes.

Sagus is championing this effort.  We have found many public and private partners along the way who share our vision.  What follows is our story, and the results of our journey thus far. 

Inadequate educational funding, government bureaucracy, unions, failure to keep up with the fast pace of changing societal norms, lack of parent engagement - all have been cited as causes for the breakdown in our educational system.  Educators have tweaked many elements to try to "fix the system."  As a private partner to education, Sagus has considered what we can do to have a positive impact on America's education system.  Sagus has been a supplier of educational furniture to kindergarten through 12th grade schools for over 40 years.  Until recent years, we considered our role as simply that of being a good supplier of furniture to schools -- offering competitively priced, quality products, which are delivered on time.  A couple of years ago, we broadened our mission.  We began to engage with educators to better understand their challenges and what they need to successfully educate in today's changing world.  We found a willing and eager partner as we entered these discussions.  We found many educators who are passionate about teaching, yet frustrated with the lack of funding and the inability to provide the proper tools and environment for learning. 

On a personal level, I have been engaged in a number of turnaround companies.  These are companies who had specific business units that had fallen behind in performance.  Their quality had become inferior; their deliveries were not meeting customer expectations; profits were at unacceptable levels; and employee morale was in the pits.  As I have engaged with the management teams at these companies, one of the first things that I have found to be important in turning around results is to change the environment in which the employees work -- improve the lighting; replace carpet; paint the walls; replace or repair worn equipment; and give the employees the tools they need to perform their work.  I have found that, without exception, when you make these changes, performance of the business improves in all measures of success -- improved quality, deliveries, profits and morale.  It only makes sense to me that if this works ini our businesses, it should work in our schools.  So, we set out to prove that theory. 

Sagus began in our hometown of Chicago, with a high-performing college prep high school and an inner city turn-around school, working with educators in designing and developing a model classroom environment.  We also found a partner willing to donate technology that supplemented our furnishings.  Upon completion, we were encouraged from the comments by the educator who enthusiastically said, "This changes the way I teach."  Further, we saw new excitement from the students and a renewed engagement in the learning process.  This encouraged us to expand our vision to remake not just single classrooms, but to transform a complete school. 

We expanded our work to perform a complete transformation of an entire Middle School in South Carolina.  Again, we found willing partners to donate materials, technology, shipping, installation labor, artwork design and painting.  We found that the local faculty and administration was willing to work alongside us, and took a sincere pride in renovating their school.  Beyond the personal satisfaction that we gained from this, we also received many new ideas that help us as a company in developing new products and in providing better service.  We found renewed vigor and pride from our employees who were involved in the project. 

We next met with the NBC Network as they were advancing their new television series called "School Pride."  The mission of the program is to demonstrate how community volunteers and private partners can come together to make a difference in education.  Their stated belief is that "while transforming the school, the community restores its sense of value and school pride."  This fit so closely with our own values and mission that we couldn't wait to become involved.  Thus far, we have been engaged in school makeovers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; Needles, California; and Los Angeles, California.  Unlike in our earlier projects where we took the lead in the makeover, in these projects we were simply one of many partners focused on transforming the whole school environment.  Beyond the classroom, cafeterias, science labs and performing arts areas, "School Pride" develops health gardens, transforms the athletic fields, paints the exterior of the school, and adds amazing artistic value to the school.  They also bring in outstanding technology and are able to leverage a much broader supplier network and amass hundreds, sometimes thousands of volunteers.  The have multiple crews that are remaking a different school each week. 

The advantages for companies in these public/private partnerships is that it allows the private partners to experience first-hand the magnitude of problems that their schools face.  Until you actually visit some of these schools and talk with the administrators, students, and faculty, you don't really appreciate the seriousness of their challenges.  It helps you as business owners/managers to develop products and services to help meet those needs.  It also creates a level of pride within your company as your associates in the company see how they are impacting society.  It also becomes motivational for you to share your experiences with other private partners to solicit their help. 

What we have experienced in working with all of these different schools across the country is teh impact of pride: the pride that students have in their new environment and the pride that volunteers and businesses feel after participating in these projects.  We have also seen the direct impact that improving the school environment has had on learning results.  The first NBC "School Pride" school was transformed about six months ago, and student test results there went up 115 points.  This just confirmed what we had experienced anecdotally in our initial school makeovers.  The South Carolina school we revitalized was taken off of probation for the first time since the state began measuring and placing underperforming schools into this category.  Then-Chicago Public Schools CEO and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said of our Chicago makeovers: "This collaboration is exactly the type of out of the box approach to improving education that we want."

Of course, there are limits to how much private partners can contribute to such projects.  But it is my belief that these types of private/public partnership initiatives can make a huge difference in educational results.  Communities and local governments need to lead the charge, but their efforts can be successfully augmented by private support.  We hope to continue to be engaged with "School Pride" as well as with others who share our vision.  Public/private partnerships, combined with community engagement, should be the new wave of cooperation to help reinvigorate our schools. 

Darryl Rosser is president of Sagus International. For more information visit www.sagusinternational.com.

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