Realtor Allan Domb has helped spur the resurgence of Center City Philadelphia, and reaped the benefits of such growth. The “Condo King” of Rittenhouse Square has seen Millennials move in and businesses thrive all over downtown and the nearby neighborhoods. He has also, over the years, been continuously struck by two competing phenomena: The city’s 26 percent poverty rate, and business executives’ perennial complaint that they can’t find qualified workers. Now Domb has begun quietly floating a possible solution: Convince the region’s businesses to “adopt” city high schools, offering vocational training to prepare students for exactly the kinds of jobs those companies need filled.
Imagine, for example, a Comcast Benjamin Franklin High training students to become linemen, or technicians, or customer service reps. An Urban Outfitters South Philly High, teaching retail skills, from design to sales to bookkeeping. A SmithKline Edison graduating students ready to work technical jobs at the pharmaceutical giant. Domb envisions schools that are successful in a way test scores can’t measure, and that could actually draw students from outside the city, looking for real skills. “The biggest outcry I hear about from businesses is our untrained workforce,” Domb says. “The biggest benefit to our kids is giving them a real job. This is connecting education and employment. It’s good for everyone.”
Domb’s idea is not without precedent. For decades, graduates of the Rochester Institute of Technology were all but guaranteed jobs in their city, for one very good reason: Founded by local behemoths Bausch&Lomb and EastmanKodak, the college catered its curriculum to teaching the skills those companies needed in their workforce. Everyone came out ahead: The companies—which grew to also include Xerox Corporation—helped to support the college; students graduated able to get jobs; the local economy thrived. Today, all three companies have a much smaller presence in Rochester; Kodak—the heart of the city—even filed for bankruptcy a few years ago. But the effect of their partnerships with RIT has lingered: Their skilled workers have drawn new businesses to town that have helped the city survive its downturn better than many former industrial cities (i.e.: Philadelphia).
Imagine a Comcast Benjamin Franklin High training students to become linemen, or techicians, or customer service reps. Or an Urban Outfitters South Philly High, teaching retail skills, from design to sales to bookkeeping.
Domb is not suggesting the District stop preparing students for college—or that the schools won’t still need more funding, more teachers and ramped-up academics. He’s simply acknowledging the reality that college is not for everyone; that 36 percent of high school students don’t graduate; and that even if they do, they often lack the skills or know-how to get well-paying jobs. “I can’t even find a bookeeper,” Domb says. Like so much of the school system, vocational training has changed little in decades—except there is less of it that is relevant to the jobs currently available.
“The number one issue we have here is connecting the business community, Center City community and the surrounding areas to neighborhoods that have not benefitted from the economic recovery,” says Domb. “We can’t be a successful city without that. And that means businesses here can’t be as successful.”
There are some schools in town that are already experimenting with this sort of thing. The District’s three new small high schools all immerse students in the community, for real-world training. At Building 21, for example, a cohort of 9th graders heads to the Free Library every Tuesday afternoon to take a cooking class with Marc Vetri. Jeff Benjamin, Vetri’s chief operating officer, said he may start offering lessons on how to run the front of the restaurant as well. (The Vetri Foundation also runs Eatiquette, which brings healthy, family-style lunches to six schools in the city.)
And at Cristo Del Rey, a Catholic high school, students spend five days a month working at local companies, including Comcast—getting real experience, in real jobs, for real wages.
These are small programs, not enough to make a city-wide difference. For that, Benjamin and Domb agree, corporations and the District need to work together far better and far more than they do now. “We’ve got folks in the business community whose life is about making things organized and efficient,” Benjamin says. “Why aren’t they being asked to help? Why don’t the Philadelphia sports teams support all the gyms in our schools? I imagine there are a lot more people like Marc and me who are willing to stand up, if they know how they can help.”
School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green applauds Domb’s idea—but says if companies really want to help, they should start much earlier than high school.
“If you really want to give every child the opportunity to be a productive citizen, having corporations and others adopt elementary schools for the purpose of teaching them how to read would have a far longer and more meaningful impact,” he says. Without proficiency in reading, Green notes, high school students still won’t be able to excel in the trades, pass an apprentice test or succeed in the available jobs. “It would be great to do what Allan is suggesting,” Green says. “But this way, in 13 years, you wouldn’t need that.”
Green has not asked the city’s employers to adopt any schools—he says the notion is just a response to hearing about Domb’s idea. Domb himself has made his proposal only informally to folks at the District and Comcast. “I’m not in a position to bring this forward,” he demurs. “I’m just bringing it up for conversation.” (Domb acknowledges that this sort of talk makes people wonder if he’s planning a mayoral run. “I have no base,” he says. “I don’t think I’d win.”)
But it is an idea that corporate leaders should take notice of. No one is proposing they donate millions to save the city’s schools—that’s not likely to happen anyway, considering the District’s abysmal financial history. No one is proposing pure charity at all. It’s simply good business to have an educated populace.
“If we have a vibrant school system, we attract a stronger workforce, create a stronger community of customers and employees,” says Benjamin. “Really, the business community has no choice but to get involved in local schools.”
CITIZEN SPEAKS: Intrigued by this idea? Join Allan Domb and Jeff Benjamin to explore it at our next Citizen Speaks event, moderated by Citizen columnist Jeremy Nowak: Tuesday, March 17 at 6:30 pm at Benjamin’s Desk. Stay tuned for more information. Reservations required.