Uncovering the “Partnership DNA” for the Future: A New Way of Thinking about Education-Employer Collaboration

By Sheila Jackson

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Photo (from left to right): SAP Head of Corporate Social Responsibility Katie Morgan, C-Town Tech Pathways Coordinator Aaron Altman, and JFF Pathways to Prosperity Senior Program Manager Sheila Jackson at the SAP Education Summit in San Francisco, CA.

After four years of working with SAP, I’ve become familiar with the culture and pace of this global software company and have experienced firsthand an authentic, functional, and effective education and employer partnership. I’ve accompanied C-Town Tech students to different SAP offices in the Boston area each year — marveled at “game rooms” with plush bean bag chairs and Xbox consoles, the fridges stocked with free seltzer, and the flat screens in the lobby. I’ve read slide decks and listened to their executives talk about the challenges and opportunities the tech industry will face moving into the future; their vocabulary is filled with words like “solutions,” “optimization,” and “connectivity.” In spite (or perhaps because) of these differences between the education and business worlds, we’ve forged a symbiotic, productive working relationship through our successful blending of “sector cultures” to launch and grow C-Town Tech.

However, this is not standard practice. Our work with SAP is, in fact, a unique, innovative, and future-looking partnership changing the status quo. This notion often comes to mind when our West Coast-based program officer, Katie Morgan, joins steering committee meetings by phone at 6 a.m. (PT) without batting an eye. This past June, I was again reminded of this when the pathway coordinator at C-Town Tech and I attended the three-day SAP Education Program Summit in San Francisco. Teams from the three other SAP education sites in Vancouver, New York City, and Oakland also participated. During the Summit, we shared school updates, engaged in collaborative problem solving, and conducted strategic planning for the upcoming year. Each site presented an aspect of its work. For example, I described the research base supporting early college high schools. We also enjoyed a round of “Networking Bingo,” an activity that we do with our C-Town Tech students on field trips (educators love to do hokey ice breakers at conferences).

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Photo (from left to right): Katherine Bergman of Career Ladders and Aaron Altman of C-Town Tech participate in a pathways mapping exercise at the SAP Summit this July.

It was only halfway through the morning after a presentation on student supports at critical transitions when it hit me: this was not like the typical conferences I go to at all. Instead of a hotel filled with breakout rooms of like-minded educators, we were discussing the importance of dual enrollment policies and work-based learning next door to (literally sharing a wall with) executives from the SAP sales team conducting an important customer meeting. Once the symbolic significance of that visual sunk in, I felt an enormous amount of energy and optimism that the career pathways we are developing at C-Town Tech, and that my colleagues are building in their home cities, are setting a new precedent for education and employer collaboration.

Such intentional, yet nontraditional, collaboration between employers and educators is imperative for changing how we prepare young people to succeed in college and careers, and supporting the economic health of states and regions. The JFF Pathways to Prosperity team’s partnership with SAP exemplifies a new type of “partnership DNA” that allows for a more equitable, harmonious exchange between our respective worlds. The silos dividing sectors and broad expectations of each are being re-drawn. I would argue that a set of underlying conditions and outcomes characterize this new “partnership DNA:”

  1. Employers respect, value, and believe in educators’ expertise, and entrust educators to make the best decisions for their students and schools.
  2. Educators and employers make space for each other’s voices and physical presence in their respective environments.
  3. Educators and employers foster trust and empathy toward one another despite different constraints imposed on them by their industries, local contexts, and immediate supervisors.
  4. Educators are given a new platform to share critical lessons and best practices from the field to different audiences.
  5. Educators have the opportunity to exert pressure on education leaders and find new ways to promote and sustain innovation within schools and school systems.
  6. Employers are comfortable with challenges and change, and demonstrate support and commitment to overcome barriers as much as they celebrate successes and early wins.

Only a couple of short weeks after the Summit, I found myself at a C-Town Tech planning meeting in the dean of professional studies and workforce development’s office at Bunker Hill Community College. We seamlessly picked up where we left off before the Summit, discussing new curriculum, summer orientation, and professional development for the upcoming year. The C-Town Tech partnership has worked hard to get to a place where stakeholders feel a strong sense of ownership over the pathway, where coming together as a group feels routine, and C-Town Tech feels like it’s always been part of Charlestown High School. But as we continue this collective work, knowing that SAP was part of the original DNA that created C-Town Tech, I feel confident that we’ve set a new precedent for education and employer partnerships in Boston and beyond.

To read more blogs from Jobs for the Future, visit JFF.org.

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JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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