Expo promotes partnerships between schools, businesses

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Business met education in Bartow County recently, and the result was beneficial for both sides. 

For its May Business After Hours event, the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce collaborated with the Bartow County School System to create the first-ever Partnership Expo: Business to Education May 31 in the Georgia Highlands College student center on the Cartersville campus. 

During the two-hour event, business and organization leaders talked with representatives from local school systems and colleges about partnerships that would provide such resources as mentorships, career shadowing, classroom speakers, internships and donations for the educational institutions and a pipeline of well-trained future employees for the businesses.

Chamber CEO Cindy Williams said the expo was part of the board of directors’ key community and economic development initiative to encourage business-to-education partnerships. 

“We believe this strategy is critical for our member employers in order to build and maintain a solid pipeline of well-prepared future workers,” she said. “The Business-to-Education Partnership Expo is one way that we are working to accomplish this goal. Much credit should also be given to Dr. Phillip Page, Bartow County Schools superintendent, who brought the idea to the chamber after having experienced a similar event in another county. His vision was instrumental in the success of the event.”

Page said he had been part of an event in the past “where we kind of did a reverse expo.”

“Instead of the businesses being on display and the schools and the public coming in to see the businesses and how they could get involved with them, we decided to flip it,” he said. “Put the schools on display and invite the community to come in and really look at what the schools’ needs were and how they could help, whether it be through mentoring, volunteering, in-kind acts or just simply sponsoring events.”

The superintendent said he and Williams began talking about the event last August, and when she said, “Well, let’s do it,” they “put it on the calendar for today [May 31].” 

They also reached out to Cartersville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach as well private schools and colleges and asked them to participate.  

“This isn’t a one-school-system event,” Page said. “This is our county showing off what educational opportunities we have and hoping that our businesses will see a way and a wide-open door, both our businesses and our faith community, to come on board and say ‘We’re going to help you get where you need to go.’”

Feuerbach said the expo was just a good opportunity to get local businesses and organizations interested in helping the schools in their community achieve their goals.  

“That’s a big deal,” he said. “I tell people all the time that schools are as strong as the support that they get from their community. We’re very, very fortunate at Cartersville City Schools to have a lot of community support, but we’re always going to talk to folks who are interested in partnering and how can they help us.”

GHC President Dr. Don Green said the college wanted to host the expo because it’s extremely important that this community builds strong relationships between business and education.

“We need to get more students graduated from high school, more students in the post-secondary experiences that give them greater skills and talent for the workforce, and we need to graduate more students from college,” he said. “By doing so, we are able to really build this economy across Bartow County. It’s super important. We thought it was so important that we wanted to be a host and really provide this opportunity.” 

During the expo, between 50 and 75 business leaders strolled through the 39 booths manned by representatives from all 20 Bartow County schools, all four Cartersville schools, Excel Christian Academy, Mountain Education Charter High School, Rollins Child Development Center, Georgia Highlands College, Chattahoochee Technical College, Read to Grow, Mentor Canes, Bartow County’s exceptional education department and The Bookmobile.

“I am thrilled with the participation of our local schools and colleges,” said Williams, noting the expo took business-to-education partnerships to an entirely new level. “Representatives from each participating organization also served on the steering committee and devoted time to organizing the event. This was truly a best-practice example of partnership and collaboration among multiple entities and systems.” 

The schools have a plethora of needs they hope local businesses will be able to meet, including athletic and playground equipment, 500 Read to Grow volunteers, garden beautification, cork and white boards, band instrument maintenance, classroom and building technology, student incentives, teacher and staff appreciation, mentors, T-shirts and guest speakers.  

Hamilton Crossing Elementary Principal Lynn Robertson said having the expo is “totally new territory for us” in terms of how the school asks for help. 

“What we’ve done in the past is just a hit-and-miss kind of thing, where we reach out to somebody when we need some help so this is good,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to build some relationships with our business community that we otherwise may not be able to tap into. We have a lot of people coming that are not in our school district but that want to have a part in shaping the school so it gives them a chance to do that.”

Robertson said a “good number of people” had been coming by the school’s booth, “and they’ve had some suggestions of how they can help our school and opportunities for us with their businesses, too, so it’s a good give-and-take.”

Attending his first big school event, new Woodland High Principal David Stephenson said the expo gave him the chance to network with other Bartow County colleagues as well as “business partners and community members who will be such a big part of what we do successfully” at WHS. 

“To me, any connections with our business partners that help provide needs to our students, we need to work both ways so there needs to be value for our business partners in that piece,” he said. “So if we’ve got business partners that have their names or their logos at Woodland High School, I want to make sure that our Woodland kids understand what value that business brings to their experience in this community. I really encourage them to be partners with those businesses and patronize and utilize and network with volunteers who want to build leadership potential in our kids. It’s a two-way street.”

Ken MacKenzie, who just retired as principal of Cartersville Middle School, said he thought the expo was  going quite well.

“I think this could be the start of something good,” he said, noting he had been networking with business people and catching up with Bartow County principals he doesn’t get to see very often. “I hope it is.”

From past experience, MacKenzie said he believes what kids need more than anything in school is mentors.

“I feel that mentoring may be the best intervention for students possible,” he said. “My experiences with mentors and my readings about research on mentors, it’s almost the best intervention for students who are struggling. For me as a principal, that’s No. 1.”

That’s why Cartersville social worker Maria Davis had a booth there — to recruit as many volunteers as possible for the Mentor Canes program. 

“It’s going great,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of interest in people mentoring. They’ve left their business cards, and we’re going to follow up with them to get them started. So it’s been a really successful day.”

Davis said she hopes to get enough volunteers to match up with all the students who are still on waiting lists.

“It’s changing the life of a child,” she said. “It’s making a difference in the future of our community.”

Matt Laughridge, owner and managing partner at Terry Reid Automotive Group, said he came to the expo to find out what the schools need.

“I didn’t realize how much essentials — clothes, shampoo, things like that on the primary school, elementary school side — are needed, and then on this side, high school is program-based stuff to keep young people active and involved, whether it’s sports or some type of developmental program,” he said, noting education is very important to his company. “We want to stay involved with the schools that we’re already with and get involved with more schools that we haven’t currently been with and try to help them out.”

Laughridge, who “absolutely” found some needs he wants to help, also said he thought it was great the chamber and school systems partnered together for the event. 

“A lot of the things that we don’t do — and other businesses, not just us — is because we don’t know about it,” he said. “So for the schools to get with the chamber and create something like this so we can actually know what the needs are is really important.”

Williams said she hopes a number of partnerships will be formed as a result of the expo.

“Businesses cannot survive without qualified, trained employees, and our local school systems and higher education institutions are best suited to meet this current and future need,” she said. “It is imperative that the education system understands the needs of local employers and that businesses, in turn, support the mission of the local schools. By opening the lines of communication between these entities, as a chamber, we are confident that our students will be better prepared to find quality jobs upon graduation and succeed in their future careers.”   

Williams, Page and Feuerbach were happy with the number of business people who came by the expo, which will be an annual event.

“We are definitely pleased with the turnout for our first year,” Williams said. “We believe that the event will continue to grow as the business community becomes increasingly more aware of the resources available to them through our local school systems and the long-term, positive financial impact that these types of partnerships will have on their organization. We anticipate a two- to three-year ramp-up process before we will reach peak attendance.” 

“It’s a great opportunity to be part of something like this,” Feuerbach said. “The support in this first year has been great.”