This article is based on an interview with Angie Adams, President and CEO of PENCIL (Public Education Needs Community Involvement and Leadership) and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox, Inc. PENCIL connects businesses with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), making it simpler for them to make an impact.
I have worked in the nonprofit field in Nashville for most of my career, leading a variety of nonprofit cultural arts organizations. Until Pencil, which is my passion.
Joining PENCIL just felt like a great next step. I care about public education and it was exciting to take on the leadership of PENCIL, especially at a time when there was a huge need in our community. It was a wonderful opportunity to really bring new life and vitality to the organization. The staff and the board and all stakeholders galvanized around the role that the business community can play in public education.
PENCIL creates educational advocates through volunteering and providing supplies for students
If you go back to our earliest days, the reason we were created was several CEOs of huge corporations wanted an opportunity for their employees to be personally engaged with public school students, to understand the power of public education and to really bring more equitable resources to our public education students.
That is still the #1 work of PENCIL today. We work with businesses to get their employees engaged with students so students can learn what career opportunities are out there in the world. Without this exposure, students only know the career roles they see in their immediate family. So it’s very important to get them role models that can talk to them about a variety of career opportunities and then help them understand how education plays a role in attaining those career aspirations.
Local business leaders engage with students in their classrooms
Our biggest impact is with our high schools. A group of business leaders will engage with the classroom on a regular basis. And then they will engage with some smaller groups of students to provide job coaching, job shadowing or field trips so that students experience what it feels like to be in that business and that role.
On the elementary school level, we’re doing much more one-on-one pairing with struggling readers. We understand the power of an adult advocate for a struggling reader, individually helping them to build their reading skills.
PENCIL staff matches students with volunteers
PENCIL is the matchmaker. We will work with an interested business to figure out the skills and interests of the business and their employees. We then match those skills and interests with needs in the public schools. As an example, I point to myself as a high school student: I hated geometry and didn’t understand why we needed to learn about angles. Well, PENCIL pairs a lighting designer for country music television with a geometry teacher and she teaches a lesson on angles, using her real life example of hanging a lighting spot for a country music video. Suddenly the student understands the practical use of geometry. The students in the geometry class have a much greater reason to pay attention to that lesson than a teacher teaching about geometry on a conceptual basis.
There are so many ways we can put business partners alongside teachers to make the material relevant so students will want to pay attention.
Teacher Supplies and Resource Centers
Because of our work with the business community, when Louisiana-Pacific moved their corporate headquarters here almost 15 years ago now, they came to us and said, "We want to helps schools through creating free teacher resource centers for products to use in their classrooms with students. Would you be interested in running this?” They provided our seed funding and Louisiana-Pacific is still our largest funders of that project.
We operate a pretty significant resource center where, for the most part, we get products donated from vendors all over the country. And then we buy a few products. PENCIL has a 13,000 square foot warehouse to store all the generous donations we receive.
Because of the pandemic, these days we're repackaging the school supplies into individual student kits so that students have what they need as they’re doing virtual learning. Last academic year we delivered $1.8 million worth of school supplies. And this year we’ll exceed $2 million because the demand is so high with students learning at home.
PENCIL is about relationship building and scalability
That’s one thing that PENCIL is clear about: for the most part, we are not educators; we’re relationship builders. We’re building relationships with and between the business community and the School Districts
Over the past 3+ years, we’ve actually been doing consulting work with other communities who are interested in creating a similar model to PENCIL. The cases where it’s been most successful is when we provide a combination of in-person and virtual training over several months. We have a model laid out over a 12- or 18-month period of time.
We also discovered the model works well when both the city's Chamber of Commerce and the School District are on board. We like to help other cities to replicate our success and plan on expanding that consultation arm of our nonprofit.
Engagement Communities digital engagement platforms are utilized by PENCIL to create even more and better relationships in the Metropolitan Nashville community.