Businesses make deep impact through Madison’s Adopt-a-School Program

Great thunderbolts of insight don’t come often, but when they do, those moments are memorable. Stephanie Hayden can tell you exactly when Madison’s Adopt-a-School Program was born, inaugurating a mutually beneficial partnership between the Madison School District and dozens of local businesses.

“We have an event each year called the Principal Experience that brings community leaders and others into the schools to see what’s really going on firsthand,” said Hayden, executive director of the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools, which administers the Adopt-a-School Program. “And one of the people who was participating stood up and said, ‘You know, if we can adopt our highways, we should be adopting our schools.’ And that’s how the Adopt-a-School Program got started. The foundation took it from there.”

“We’re kind of on the outskirts of Madison, and a lot of times we kind of feel like we’re in a pretty small and isolated and forgotten-about community, so just the fact that they’re reaching out to us and already getting engaged is beyond our expectations.” — Brett Wilfrid, principal, Sandburg Elementary

It’s been eight years, and the program has forged strong ties between Madison business leaders and the community’s public schools, but some schools — 19 out of the 50 schools in the school district — remain on the waiting list.

“The program is very unique,” said Hayden. “School to school, each relationship is very different, but the relationship with each school has a tremendous impact on the students and educators in those schools.”

The partnerships between Madison businesses and Madison schools run the gamut, featuring everything from anti-obesity initiatives to school supply drives to pen pal programs to tutoring, but the one common thread is a dedication to enriching children’s educational experiences.

One of the latest entries into the Adopt-a-School Program is McKinstry, a national “design, build, operate, and maintain” firm with a Madison office. The company first became acquainted with the Madison School District through its PowerED program, which promotes energy efficiency through behavior modification and operational changes district-wide.

The company chose Sandburg Elementary, a school on the far northeast outskirts of Madison with the highest student poverty rate in the district. In fact, one in seven Sandburg students is homeless, and 70% qualify for the free breakfast/lunch program. The school is also overcrowded, with student capacity at 117%.

For Lana Derr, a project coordinator for McKinstry who has spearheaded the company’s participation in the Adopt-a-School Program, those numbers helped make McKinstry’s decision an easy one.

“We went to a luncheon put on by the Foundation for Madison’s schools, and we heard about the program,” said Derr. “They gave us a printout of all the schools that didn’t have sponsors yet, and we pretty much decided that day that we were going to pick this one.”

Growing closer

McKinstry’s relationship with Sandburg is still in its get-to-know-you phase (it kicked off with a pizza party and ice cream social this fall), but the company envisions a growing role in the future.

It hosted a giving tree over the holiday season, and it hopes to begin a pen pal program and help to mentor and encourage Sandburg’s students.

“We’re kind of looking to add some ideas, things that they need in the way of monetary donations, but also, they really want sort of a community presence in their school, and they’re looking to us for mentorship opportunities and things of that nature,” said Dan Choi, who is in charge of Wisconsin business development for McKinstry. “So we’ve been in discussions with them about all the things we plan to do.”

For Sandburg Elementary Principal Brett Wilfrid, that forward-thinking attitude has been more than welcome.

“In terms of expectations, we’re just already beyond thrilled that a private business would reach out to a public school like ours,” said Wilfrid. “We’re kind of on the outskirts of Madison, and a lot of times we kind of feel like we’re in a pretty small and isolated and forgotten-about community, so just the fact that they’re reaching out to us and already getting engaged is beyond our expectations.”



But while Wilfrid says the program is beginning with baby steps, the impact on his students has already been noticeable.

“I just had a number of students who stopped me in the hallway just thrilled that they could have a pen pal relationship,” said Wilfrid. “There are two big things that have happened. One I think is that they, for the first time in my five years here, have this business that — it’s not somebody’s dad, there’s no implicit connection there — but this business just reached out of the blue and looked to help out a public school.

“So I think the feeling of just hope and gratitude that students get from that type of experience, just seeing them in the assembly and at the welcome-back night and stuff like that, that’s just huge. It gives kids in a high-poverty school the sense that there are people out there who out of the goodness of their hearts want to do something good for kids who are in public schools.”

The mentorship role that both Wilfrid and McKinstry envision may also include encouraging students to consider pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

“We’re all engineers over here, so it’s interesting for us to see young students that would be interested in STEM-type education,” said Choi. “I think to create a little bit of excitement or a little bit of that interest for those students would be awesome.”

According to Derr, showing that connection between kids’ science and math courses and something a bit more tangible than a story problem could help steer kids in a more positive direction.

“A lot of these kids at the age they’re at, they’re probably thinking, ‘I’m going to be a baseball player’ or ‘I’m going to be a singer.’ Something that’s more of a dream,” said Derr. “And so why not have that be a more realistic option of a career?”

With a flourish

According to Hayden, the mentorship programs that have been undertaken by other business-school partnerships through the Adopt-a-School program have borne considerable fruit.

These aren’t always grandiose initiatives — sometimes it’s simply enough to reach out and show some interest in kids’ lives.

“We’ve started this between Lapham [Elementary School] and the Department of Health Services,” said Hayden. “They started a pen pal program where they’re writing back and forth between DHS and second graders at Lapham, and it has flourished. We have a story of one student who really struggled with writing and reading, but he would just wait to get his letter from his pen pal each week, and then he would just write and write and write. And sometimes it had been a struggle for him, but through this relationship, he improved. So they’ve all been making an impact on kids.”

It’s an impact that Wilfrid and his fellow principals have already seen — and one he’d like to see repeated in those 19 “unadopted” Madison schools.

“What I want to reiterate is that just forming the connection, just the human connection — even if it doesn’t mean there’s going to be some fiscal expense or some kind of big showy thing — just forming a connection with a local public school and deepening an awareness of what happens in our public schools is absolutely essential,” said Wilfrid. “Really, just taking a little time to be there for kids, to just spend time with them and give them exposure to another person who works in business, they learn from that person and see what their skills are like.”

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