In a recent speech, Gov. Jared Polis remarked that business leaders need to run for school board elections. This  reinforced the notion that there should be elevated corporate involvement in public schools to ensure school districts respond to what businesses want from the next generation of the workforce.

But involvement — especially at this level of policymaking — requires more than just sitting in the school board seats. It means embracing the fundamental role public education plays in our society and generating the community engagement required to fulfill that role.

We, the public, are responsible for our schools. While school districts ensure the infrastructure is in place to make quality teaching and learning possible, the larger community needs to ensure the necessary supports are in place for students to access.

So, let’s get three points clear:

First, public education should serve the community at large, and not just specific sectors.

Our city is strengthened by every student who graduates ready to lead a successful life. We need students who can function in — and uphold — a just, democratic, and civil society. Fortunately, there has been an increase in corporate collaboration with school districts to create more accessible career-readiness programs, giving students early exposure to a variety of career options.

For example, FirstBank’s intern program gives high school students an orientation of what it is like to work — and the aptitude required to be successful — in the finance and banking field. Janus Henderson’s financial literacy programs enable students and families to understand the value of saving and the impact of compound interest. Programs like these demonstrate the positive impact generated when the private sector invests in a student’s future.

Public education is not just a key for underserved families to break out of the poverty cycle. It is a key to unlocking the pathway for civil and civic participation in order to engage in productive dialogue to identify community challenges and find solutions. 

Second, schools require a partnership between the district and the community, including the corporate sector, to be high performing.

Schools have an academic mission, but learning is a community-wide responsibility. Kids are facing a myriad of challenges now that have an impact on learning and being employable upon graduation is more than just a skills challenge. We ask schools to address issues like social and emotional wellness, food security, and safety without providing the proper funding and resources to address these issues effectively and sustainably.

Some businesses have stepped up to support these needs. United Healthcare, for example, invests heavily in food security and HealthOne invests in mental health resources. However, many schools simply do not have the resources to offer these kinds of opportunities, despite the efforts of parents, PTAs, and neighborhood groups to provide schools with extra support.

While the DPS Foundation provides classroom grants to teachers through our A to Z Fund, educators still often report spending their own money to purchase educational materials or subsidize field trips. This isn’t a sustainable solution and we need a deeper level of support for school-wide and district-wide improvement. We expect so much from our school system yet invest so little for it to do the job well. We expect a filet mignon, but only want to pay for chicken.

Third, supporting the needs of the whole child and producing workforce-ready young adults requires a community-wide commitment.

Students spend less than a third of their waking time in our classrooms. The majority of their time is spent in the community. There is so much opportunity for private-public partnerships in the out-of-school time space.

Chevron, for example, funds summer and afterschool STEM programs, which expose students to robotics, computer coding, and environmental studies. VF Foundation also provides afterschool and summer program support, and IMA Financial supports arts programs as well as a host of afterschool activities across the region. Our city, state, schools, businesses, and community must agree that a higher level of investment in our educators and students must be made, ensuring that quality learning is a shared culture in and out of the classroom.

Our students and community thrive when we join together and invest in resources and solutions for our schools. When the community, including our business leaders, plays an active role in supporting our students, educators will be able to focus on their core mission of teaching, which will lead to positive student development outcomes and a higher level of school performance.

We absolutely need businesses to get involved in our public education system, but let’s ask ourselves “to do what?” before we think we’ve solved the problems. Otherwise, we are just engaged in rhetoric where “seats” are filled but no one stands and takes action.

Richard Tagle, of Denver, is president & CEO of the Denver Public Schools Foundation

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Richard Tagle, of Denver, is president & CEO of the Denver Public Schools Foundation.