Corporations Taking a Stand for Public Education

Jamal Cornelious is the Manager of Civic Engagement for Citizen Schools Illinois. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post Blog. 

Chicago is known for being a city built on strong relationships and strategic alliances. The old saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know” may be more relevant in Chicago than in any other city. So when I joined Citizen Schools, the “new nonprofit on the block,” I expected an uphill battle to build relationships with the corporate community.

Citizen Schools partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities across the country. By drawing thousands more citizens into schools each year, we are promoting student achievement, transforming schools, and re-imagining education in America. We launched this fall in Chicago with two school partners, Chavez Multicultural Academic Centerin Back of the Yards and Walsh Elementary in Pilsen. Citizen Schools extends the learning day for more than 350 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for three hours in the afternoon, Monday through Thursday. Program elements include academic supportcollege to career connections, and what I call our secret sauce -apprenticeships.

One of my first corporate meetings was with the AOL team in Chicago to recruit Citizen Teachers to lead our 10-week apprenticeships. I have to admit that I was nervous – it was my third week on the job! I remember spending hours preparing for my presentation and anticipating all of their questions and then the big day arrived. As I prepared to start my presentation to encourage them to volunteer with us, a member of the team said, “We’re on board! We just want to know what we can teach.” It was then I truly realized what an awesome opportunity I could offer the city’s corporate sector. We were in a position to bring some of the most thoughtful, talented, and hard-working citizens of Chicago into the lives of middle school students.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this same level of interest with many of our corporate partners. Meeting after meeting, the response from the business community was overwhelming. Chicago professionals from leading regional banks and technology giants chose to make an investment in the city’s future by sharing their passion and expertise with students. I talked to volunteers who stayed in the office extra hours because they were excited to plan out next week’s lesson for their apprenticeship. Other volunteers chose to flex their hours or arrive to work early in order to spend a valuable 90 minutes per week teaching students about marketing or how to design a video game.

Here is just an example of the impact of Chicago’s Citizen Teachers. AOL employees are teaching marketing and business. Google employees are teaching robotics and presentation skills. MB Financial employees are teaching entrepreneurship and sales. Cognizant employees are teaching business and mobile app design. Deloitte has 40 students visit their offices once a week to learn about healthy living and how to be a consultant. United pilots and operations managers are teaching students about aviation — including a visit to the tarmac at O’Hare National Airport, the first visit there for many participants.

Seeing our students become young marketing professionals, entrepreneurs, investors and engineers has been a transformational experience for me as well. It is amazing to see students grow as individuals and potential professionals over the course of 10 weeks. I find myself constantly in awe of our students and our amazing volunteers and I am sure that each one of them will tell you that the investment they made in our kids future has already begun to pay dividends. How have you experienced the generosity and commitment of Chicago’s companies in your community? Were you as excited as I was by their dedication and enthusiasm?