Bank Makes 'Wise' Investment - in a School

In the early 1990s, M&T Bank in Buffalo, N.Y., wanted to do some charitable giving and was looking for a project that would really pack a punch.

"The bank had done well," says Robert Wilmers, M&T's chairman and CEO, "and we felt we wanted to pay the community back in some way."

Instead of making contributions to a variety of causes, the bank decided to spend its money all in one place: School 68, a run-down public elementary school located in a neighborhood where 9 out of 10 families live below the poverty level.

The result has been a true Cinderella story. In five years, School 68 - renamed the Westminster Community School - went from having among the lowest scores in the city on standardized tests to ranking among the top half of Buffalo schools. The once-dilapidated building today is bright and shiny. Each crisply repainted classroom boasts four computers, and students enjoy expanded instruction in art and music, in addition to a renovated gym and cafeteria.

Enrollment in the K-8-grade school, where the student body is about 90 percent African-American, has leaped from 314 to 565 as parents who once fought to get their kids out of School 68 now can't wait to get them in.

School 68's turnaround is part of a trend that's been on the rise since the 1970s, says Janice Petrovich, director for education, knowledge, and religion at The Ford Foundation in New York. From individual entrepreneurs adopting a single class to corporations adopting clusters of schools, private-sector involvement in public schools has produced a number of success stories.

And while a serious corporate commitment to a single school along the lines of the M&T project is an unusual one, Dr. Petrovich predicts such private-public cooperations will continue to increase as businesses realize the urgent need "to invest in the work force of the future."

Recognizing the need was the easy part, according to Mr. Wilmers: "The most important problem we have in Buffalo and in all America is education." Knowing what to do about it was harder. But the bank opted to work in a small arena, pledging to spend up to $800,000 a year - about 1.5 percent of its pre-tax earnings - for nine years and focusing the management skills of its leadership on a project where they could have a meaningful impact.

What fascinates some about the story of School 68 is that it's more than a simple tale of dollars and cents.

John Carmichael, M&T's vice president of commercial marketing, who served as liaison to the school and for three years devoted the bulk of his working hours to problem-solving for the school, insists that the most desperate need at School 68 was not for money - but for caring and energetic management. "What we bring to the table is our understanding of business and management and getting things done," he says.

Even while agreeing that some of the spending the bank did was crucial, Mr. Carmichael maintains, "We probably could have spent half what we did, and still seen the same improvement in test scores."

Bank managers found themselves at the heart of decisionmaking for the school as the result of a rather unique arrangement pioneered by Wilmers and the Buffalo Board of Education. Together they created a Board of Trustees to govern the school, consisting of representatives from both the city school system and the bank, and agreed that the city would continue to provide basic services for the school, with the bank providing funding for projects above and beyond what the city would have spent on its own (see time line below).

The first big challenge the new board faced was also perhaps its most essential one: recruiting a principal equipped to engineer a turnaround. Wilmers and some others involved remember the 18-month period during which the bank conducted a nationwide search as one of the most exhausting and discouraging phases of the project. But in August, 1994, Yvonne Minor-Ragan was finally brought on board.

Dr. Ragan, an energetic principal who'd already won commendation for turning around a failing Chicago middle school, was exactly the powerhouse the search committee had hoped to find. To lure Ragan to Buffalo, M&T Bank contributed an undisclosed supplement in addition to the normal salary the Board of Education agreed to offer her.

New principal, new rules

The new principal hit the ground running. Within weeks of arriving she forced the closing of a crack house operating across the street from the school and persuaded 150 parents to attend a school meeting - a considerable achievement in a school where meetings never drew more than a handful of parents.

She also made it clear to the school's teachers that serious change was under way - and that being part of it would require hard work, including professional development workshops and meetings outside of normal school hours. Within three years of her arrival there was more than 50 percent turnover in school staff. According to Ragan, only one teacher was forced to leave. Others, she says, quit or opted for transfers to other Buffalo schools.

Ragan describes her own style as "lots of praising and hugging" and she makes a point of knowing all the school's students by their first names. But she's also instituted tough rules against fighting and swearing among the students, and doesn't hesitate to suspend those who step out of line. In addition, she takes a tough stand on minor infractions such as tardiness.

Not everyone likes Ragan's style. Some visitors to the school have labeled her respect for order exaggerated, and find the control exercised over teachers and students to be too tight.

But many parents say they love the more orderly atmosphere. "Dr. Ragan's the best thing that could have happened to this school," enthuses one father as he drops his second-grade daughter off at her homeroom. "We owe everything to her."

From the bank's point of view, Wilmers insists that "about 90 percent" of the project's success can be attributed to Ragan.

In fact, working with Ragan and with the school has been an education in itself for the bank, says Wilmers. He's been struck by the simple fact that, "Education is complicated. There are no shortcuts. It's a lot of hard work."

It also came as a shock for M&T Bank to learn first-hand about the yards of red tape that can gum up the gears of a school system. At one point, the bank purchased a new phone system for the school, but then had to wait two years for it to be installed. Educators, Wilmers says, often endure conditions businesspeople would consider intolerable.

Looking ahead

As the project moves into its fifth year, Wilmers wants to see further academic progress. "How," he wonders, "do we get even higher?" He hopes professional development workshops now being offered the school's teachers by consultants from Columbia University's Teacher College in New York will provide the answer.

But in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood surrounding the school, residents don't hesitate to cheer the project's success. Each September Ragan leads a back-to-school parade through the neighborhood streets, and locals say it lifts their hearts and spirits to see the kids marching in the school's unofficial uniform of black skirts or pants and white shirts.

It's the parents to whom the changes at the school mean the most, however. Local resident Liya Razor says that when her daughter Aliya was born five years ago, she was determined to keep her out of School 68. Today, at the close of Aliya's first year of kindergarten at the school, Ms. Razor says, "I wouldn't want her anywhere else."

Remaking A School: The First Five Years

1993-1994

Amount Spent: $53,936

The school is painted; the auditorium and gym are refurbished; a nationwide search is launched for a new principal; a health clinic is set up in the school.

1994-1995

Amount Spent: $202,608

The new principal is appointed; a site-based management team is set up, including teachers, aides, parents and a representative from M&T Bank; the school's name is changed; an after-school enrichment program is launched; the school organizes its first choir in years; a six-week, half-day summer school program is set up; the bank begins a two-year plan to install 142 computers in classrooms.

1995-1996

Amount Spent: $875,567

The bank launches a mentoring program, initially pairing 20 students with bank employees; a computer media center is established in the library and a 30-computer teaching lab is set up in a separate classroom; teachers participate in curriculum development and instruction workshops; funds are made available to expand the teaching of art, music, and technology.

1996-1997

Amount Spent: $531,102

For the first time in years the now renamed Westminster Community School exceeds the district average in nationally standardized math and reading tests; each staff member - including teachers' aides and the school librarian - receives an average of 110 hours of professional training; the summer-school program expands to a full-day format; a full time guidance counselor/social worker is added to the school staff; local university students begin a volunteer tutoring program at the school.

1997-1998

Amount Spent: $465,000 (year to date)

Consultants from Columbia University's Teacher College begin offering writing and reading workshops for the school's teachers; advanced-level math and reading courses are made available to 12 percent of the student body; the entire eighth grade takes a field trip to Toronto to see "Phantom of the Opera"; the bank's mentoring program now includes 50 employee-student pairs.

* Send comments to: coeymanm@csps.com

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