When Ken Stellmacher lived in Reno, Nev., his company partnered with a local high school and both sides benefited. The students shadowed the employees at their jobs. The workers interacted with students on campus “and we actually spent time lecturing during guest classes,” said Stellmacher, vice president of marketing for Kampgrounds of America (KOA).
“The high school I spent the most time with was an at-risk school, and that was fulfilling for us because these kids were at a disadvantage to start with,” Stellmacher told the Billings Gazette in Montana.
The alliance was part of a grassroots organization, Partners in Education, that in 30 years has spread throughout the U.S. More than 400,000 school-business partnerships involve 7 million volunteers.
When Stellmacher and wife, Tracy, a teacher, moved to Billings in 2000, they brought the memory of that positive partnership with them. About a year ago, the couple approached then-superintendent Jo Swain in School District 2 about developing a similar program in Billings, The Gazette reported.
Out of those talks came a new partnership between KOA in Billings and Ponderosa Elementary. Earlier this month, Stellmacher and Ponderosa Principal Carol Forney signed a partnership agreement over ice cream as students, parents, teachers and KOA employees looked on.
Stellmacher hopes it will be the start of a successful partnership, that will be a catalyst to other businesses to formalize existing partnerships or start new ones. To assist in the effort, Celebrate Billings, a consortium of local businesses, is helping fund a part-time coordinator to bring businesses and schools together.
The position will come under the umbrella of the Education Foundation of Billings Public Schools, which also helped foster the KOA-Ponderosa connection.
Swain, who pushed for the partnership and the new position, said that linking businesses to schools allows corporate America to have “an opportunity to support the work education is trying to do in the schools and the community, and education can understand the needs of business.”
Informal partnerships already exist between other schools and businesses in the area, including, McKinley Elementary and Deaconess Billings Clinic, and Arrowhead Elementary and Mission Ridge. Swain sees Partners in Education as a way to build on that success.
Stellmacher said 20 KOA employees have already committed to volunteering at the school, tutoring or helping out at school events. The company also plans to donate $5,000 to the school.
Specifics of how that money will be used and how the partners will work together will be worked out by a committee in October.
“We’ll let them help us understand what their needs are and how our resources match up with those needs,” Stellmacher said.
Forney looks forward to the volunteers spending one-on-one time with her students. The money, she said, could be used to boost student reading and math skills.
Knowing that a local business wants to commit time and resources to the South Side school makes the school “feel appreciated,” she said.
“The school is working really hard,” Forney said. “Just to have a little help with our projects and the human touch it provides to our kids is really important.”