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First person: Time to step up

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Businesses must do their part to improve education.

By Bill Thorndike

All we do is talk, talk, talk. Unfortunately, that talk isn’t cheap when it comes to fixing Oregon schools. The inclination of the statewide business community is for “all talk and no action” and it has cost us plenty to our collective bottom lines.

The economic data is unmistakable: Raising incomes for individuals and for the state depends directly on developing a well-educated and highly skilled population. 

Students thrive when parents and community members play an active role in their education. Parents are telling the Chalkboard Project they want to be more involved in their children’s schools, but they need help from their employers.

When I attended the Oregon Business Plan’s Annual Summit back in January, there was a lot of talk of a different kind. I overheard several conversations from employers who said they want to support their schools and employees in a meaningful and manageable way. They just need help.

It’s time we start giving more to schools than lip service or the random auction item, and start putting our money where our mouths are.

Beginning this winter, businesses all over Oregon are being asked to take part in the Employer-to-Classroom Challenge. By this time next year, more than 500 Oregon employers of all sizes will be pushing policies and practices that encourage school involvement and volunteerism by all of their employees, regardless of whether or not they have kids in school.

To participate, companies are asked to pick three measures and stick to them for three years. The measures can include things like allowing extended lunch hours, integrating flextime or compressed workweeks; providing employees with paid time off to volunteer in schools; providing on-site learning opportunities for teachers and students (such as job shadows, tours or internships); and offering incentives to employees who are involved in education work, such as matching employee donations to school or community leave time. E3: Employers for Education Excellence will help businesses monitor and record their school support activities. Companies that fulfill their three-year commitment will receive special recognition as a certified Oregon Education Champion.  

When the Chalkboard Project conducted a recent statewide survey among parents of school kids, they learned that work schedule conflicts are the No. 1 barrier to volunteering time in the classroom. Nearly all of the survey respondents said they would be very or somewhat likely to volunteer time if encouraged by their employer.

In a previous statewide survey of all Oregonians, 83% identified lack of parent involvement as the biggest obstacle to student achievement. What is so revealing with this statistic is that it shows the disconnect between perception and reality: The general public has little awareness of how involved many parents already are, or of parents’ desire to, in fact, do more. Groups such as the Chalkboard Project and E3 want to help bridge that gap.

Here at Medford Fabrication, we plan to get things rolling by giving our employees more flexibility with their work schedules. It’s important for parents to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences during the school day, or for employees to volunteer to read in the classroom during their lunch hour. We’ll also leverage our internal business expertise by supplying “on-loan” employees to support schools where they want and need our help. 

Job shadows and internships are another item from the checklist we’re embracing. And, finally, we’re opening our corporate conference and meeting room doors to schools that are short on space or need an off-campus location.

Admittedly, when we first glanced at the list of measures we could take, we paused. Even though I am proud to sit among the founding five foundations of the Chalkboard Project, my company came up with numerous excuses for why we couldn’t kick down the employer barriers to parent involvement. Everything from legal concerns to the complications of trying to implement these concepts across the board for each one of our 80 employees fueled our hesitation.

Frankly, it was tempting to fall back into that same old mindset of talking about the problem rather than fixing it. But, on the flip side, we immediately recognized this challenge as an opportunity to invigorate our company’s long-term commitment to education with new energy and creativity. These are easy-to-implement tactics that incrementally improve the entire education system. If we can’t come together around simple concepts that get our employees into the classrooms, then we might as well forget about recruiting Oregon graduates tomorrow.  It’s time for you to start thinking this way, too.

We’ll be looking for your name listed among the 500 participating Oregon employers.

Bill Thorndike is president of Medford Fabrication and trustee with the Oregon Community Foundation, one of the five original foundations that formed the Chalkboard Project in 2003. Learn more about the Employer-to-Classroom Challenge at www.chalkboardproject.org.


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