The national debate about improving our education system includes one view that schools should act more like a business to drive innovation and improve efficiencies. 

While there may be some merit in the belief that public education is a “closed” system and, as such, doesn’t open itself to the type of innovative thinking that prevails in today’s most successful companies, we tend to think a more basic question should first be put on the table.

Rather than ask what business can do to help our schools, we need to ask schools what they need.

The simple “ask” – from company to school – establishes a more meaningful paradigm for businesses to get involved in local education. The common “touch point” for a company is the school’s request for funds. A local dental office or insurance company will annually or quarterly receive a call from a school fund-raising foundation to make a donation in support of, say, a sports program or to buy more books and supplies. These campaigns are worthwhile investments and serve an important purpose to fill the known financial gaps in today’s school systems.

However, the more meaningful contribution that business can make to schools is having an ongoing dialogue. Companies can be more effective if they begin a discussion with principals and administrators at the schools in their backyards. The dialogue creates a collaborative process and opens the door for experienced business professionals to share their suggestions and ideas, rather than just write checks.

Businesses should not simply write a check every time a school foundation puts out its hand. As businesses dive in to help, managers and other employees have the opportunity to share their experiences, draw blueprints for future fund-raising efforts and help school administrators consider other approaches to solving their needs.

Take, for example, the process that has been created between Toll Brothers and a school in the backyard of its Porter Ranch community. By creating an ongoing dialogue with the schools’ principals, executives at Toll Brothers recognized the areas where a company can have the most positive impact on students. As a homebuilder, Toll Brothers needs future engineers and designers and STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will help generate these future employees.

That is why Toll Brothers financially supported the robotics team at Granada Hills Charter High School. In talking with Castlebay Charter Elementary School about maintaining educational excellence, it became clear their arts program needed a boost. A $14,000 contribution meant teachers could now conduct the programs that lead to better critical-thinking and problem-solving skills through various arts programs. 

Business, to have a positive impact on a school system, must begin the journey at the local level, on the ground floor. Exercises, discussions and contributions that create more lasting and beneficial partnerships that benefit students are accomplished in individual strokes – not through broad-brush campaigns or programs. Each school has its own unique needs and challenges. In a bottom-up approach, principals, teachers and regional administrators are provided the opportunity to express their concerns.

Some companies may be quick to complain about what they perceive as problems within a school system, especially if all they are seeing are achievement scores and test results. Does the business world deserve a better future job candidate from primary school systems? Of course. But efforts to impose business methods on school districts are not the only answer. Companies should not be standing outside the school fence and shouting that systems are broken. The way to the solution is to open the gate, walk in and ask how you can help.

Frank Su is a division vice president at real estate developer Toll Brothers in Porter Ranch, and he is a Porter Ranch resident.