Partnering With Pencil to Help N.Y. Schools

How One Businessman Uses His Marketing Skills to Engage Students -- and His Community

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When I need a break from Harlem Vintage & Nectar Wine Bar, the wine shop and wine bar I own in New York's Central Harlem, I don't need to go far. Just eight blocks away is my new second home -- the John H. Finley Campus School. I got to know the school last fall after enrolling in the Pencil Partnership Program, which is run by the nonprofit organization Pencil. The organization pairs business leaders with school principals throughout the city to help them meet the goals of individual public school communities.

My Pencil partner, Principal Odelphia Pierre, had me hooked from the start. Her passion in leading John Finley -- which is expanding from a kindergarten-through-fifth grade elementary school to an elementary-middle school -- is infectious. She is as attached to the students as though they were all her own children. During our first meeting, we had a very long conversation about PS 129 and the challenges the school faced as it. From that initial talk, we identified enhancing the school's communications outreach as a primary goal in attracting new students, building school community and ultimately engaging parents in the leaning process. Drawing on my own experiences in marketing, I was eager to help her take on this challenge.

In September, we officially launched our partnership by announcing a student logo contest. Initially, we weren't sure whether we'd get much interest from such young kids. But within a few weeks, more than 200 submissions had come in. The following month, at Pencil's Partnership Program kick-off event, I visited the school to judge the designs of three finalists along with a committee of faculty -- including Ms. Pierre -- and two experts: marketing guru David Watkins and graphic designer Tischen Franklin. Winning sixth-grade student Ashley Torres touched everyone in the room with her vision of a golden key. As Ashley put it, "The logo represents that John Finley is a key for success and can help us unlock our possibilities."

It was hard to tell who looked prouder: me or Ms. Pierre. We are now in the process of sharing Ashley's work with the rest of our Harlem community by including it on the school's letterhead, uniforms and signage.

Fueled by our first accomplishment, Ms. Pierre and I quickly moved on to a new goal: creating a digital strategy to strengthen the school's communication with key stakeholders -- students, parents, alumni, local business partners and potential applicants. The first step was to help the students create a Facebook page and a Web site for the school. We realized that it would be most effective if the Web site also helped engage students.

And so the first-ever technology club at the John Finley Campus School was born. I recruited a graphic designer to work with the students on laying out the site and creating content. Over the past few months, the technology club has been meeting regularly with its new mentor to refine its concepts and learn basic HTML skills. We look forward this spring to officially launching the site -- which has the potential to help market the school to an unlimited audience base.

I have learned a lot in just a short time working with Ms. Pierre and her incredible students and faculty at John Finley. The partnership has helped awaken me to the vast, untapped talent in our public-school kids that is waiting to burst out. There are millions of Ashleys out there, with new ideas and high hopes that can help invigorate our professional lives -- whatever field we're in.

As a small-business owner and neighbor, I have also been struck by the realization of how much I can offer a school community. The Pencil Partnership Program is unique in that, rather than focus on soliciting financial contributions, it emphasizes the need to bring human capital into our schools. Before participating in the program, I took for granted just how valuable my expertise, contacts and experience in business could be for the broader community.

For me, the partnership has shed a new light on how the business community can relate to the challenges our school leaders face. Like many managers, principals are often so focused on putting out fires that they have trouble taking a more long-term perspective on developing their mission. Through Pencil, I've been able to bring a fresh perspective into the John Finley Campus School while helping make an investment in my neighborhood community.

Perhaps most important, it has reminded me of my key to the future -- my neighborhood, my city and the schools we all share responsibility for shaping.

Eric Woods is the owner of the Harlem Vintage & Nectar Wine Bar in New York.

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