Tips for engaging local businesses with Ray-Pec Community Partnership Coordinator Jake Wingo

Jake Wingo, Community Partnership Coordinator, Raymore-Peculiar High School, shares his experience ensuring all English 4 students graduate with a Market Value Asset by 2030.

In their senior English classes, Raymore-Peculiar High School students are applying their reading and writing skills to researching and presenting proposals for local businesses that range from advanced manufacturing to professional sports teams.

“I think it’s a really unique way to learn English skills,” Ray-Pec Community Partnership Coordinator Jake Wingo said. “If you go work at Burns & McDonnell, you’re going to have to make these pitches and write these presentations to businesses to succeed.”

Since starting with the district in 2019, Wingo has recruited over 200 local organizations to work with students on client-connected projects, internships, and other opportunities.

By embedding client-connected projects (CCP) into their English 4 classes, Raymore-Peculiar is on track to have every student graduate with a Market Value Asset by 2030.

For those outside of education, Wingo likens their CCP to an RFP process. He talks to businesses, learns about what problems they are facing, and students work in groups to propose solutions.

Prior to joining the district, Wingo worked as a recruiter. He says that building relationships with organizations and local leaders allows him to not only utilize those skills, but also feel good about the work he’s doing.

We talked with Wingo about the successes and challenges, including COVID-19, that he’s had in his first year.

Note: Some of Wingo’s responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

When you came to Ray-Pec, you had to create most of these partnerships from scratch, so where did you start?

So to kick it off, I was just trying to reach out to as many businesses as possible, which I had a lot of experience doing as a recruiter. The focus was just getting businesses on board and then we’d figure out how we wanted to actually engage them later on. So it was a lot of cold calling, which I was very used to in my previous work. This is just a lot easier sell than trying to get businesses to give you money, because helping kids is a pretty easy sell. That’s really the hardest part about all of this is just asking and being okay if they say no, but knowing that most people won’t say, “No, I don’t want to help kids.” And, then, as part of the process of intaking these business partners, I asked them the different things that they might be interested in doing.

If you began cultivating relationships before the districts Real World Learning plans were fully solidified, how did you keep businesses on board and engaged?

I reached back out to them later on once we had a clear idea of what we were doing, and then it was just a lot of trying to figure out projects that worked. Once you get some good examples of projects that we at least think will work, then it becomes a lot easier. The first six months or so were pretty rough because I was going out and selling something that we didn’t necessarily have filled out very well. So, it was like, “Hey, we want your help, just not yet. So hang on and I’ll get back to you.”

And they all work with us in different ways. I definitely didn’t want to go into a business and say, “Hey, we need you to do these 15 things to be a partner.” It was really going in and telling them about the different things we’re doing and then letting them choose what they wanted with a menu type approach.

What types of businesses have you created partnerships with so far?

It’s pretty much everything from hospitals to advanced manufacturing companies and restaurants, accounting firms, design companies, video production companies, and professional sports teams. There are some areas that are a little heavier because we surveyed students to figure out where their career interests lied. But other than that, it was really trying to get a wide range so that students didn’t feel pigeonholed into certain things.

Are there factors that you think make Ray-Pec unique in recruiting businesses?

Yes and no. The companies that are here are definitely ready to give back, and that’s really helpful that we have a lot of support from the local businesses and local communities. Also, we don’t have very many businesses. So it’s a plus and a minus there. It definitely brings some unique challenges when there’s only X number of companies to work with in your area. And it’s a little bit harder to get someone in Kansas City to engage, but it’s necessary because we just don’t have the volume that we would need, especially when there’s other schools in the area that are part of our cohort. We really have to expand into other areas, but that’s honestly made a lot easier by COVID because people are used to basically virtual-only interaction and a company can be an hour away. It doesn’t matter. We can engage them exactly the same as we are with our local companies right now.

What are some examples of the partnership and projects students are working on?

One of our best and earliest examples was at Cass Regional Medical Center. They’re asking the question, “How do we attract and retain medical professionals to rural areas?” It’s really easy to pick out the things that work about that project. One: we’re in a rural area, so it applies to all of our students, and they’re going to need to see medical professionals for the rest of their life. Two: it doesn’t have one correct answer. There’s a multitude of possibilities as to how they get an answer to that question. And three: it appeals to more than just one job. So, if a student wants to be a nurse or anything in a medical profession, that job, that project still applies to them and could interest them.

Another good example we have is our superintendent’s project. He’s asking students to figure out a good GIS software for the district. It would be really helpful as far as creating boundaries and planning new facilities and things like that, but we’ve never used one in the past. He’s asking students to go out and find which one would be best for us, and I think that would be a really good opportunity for students to be exposed to an industry and a job that makes a lot of money that people don’t know about very often. So that’s a nice added benefit that it’s exposing kids to maybe industries they weren’t familiar with.

What advice would you give to someone else in a role similar to yours?

Just ask, make that cold call, send the email.

Don’t be afraid to ask people for things. I think a lot of the education system is like, “Oh, I know these teachers work really hard, so I don’t want to ask them to do more.” And I totally understand that, but when it comes to the businesses, the worst thing they can say is no. So just ask, make that cold call, send the email. You might not hear back, but the percentages are so low on the people that aren’t interested in helping you in at least some way or know someone else that will. And then step two is really just to organize. I came into this with the recruiter mentality of, I need to know every note that I’ve sent, every call that I’ve made, it needs to be documented so when I’m interacting with 300 businesses, I know what I said to them last time. So getting a CRM and really staying organized through that process helps a lot, and it’s better customer service for the businesses.

It sounds like youre bringing a business acumen and mindset to education and vice versa.

I think because businesses and schools have not traditionally worked together – which is kind of crazy when you think about trying to develop a good employee, you might want to look at the source, and talk to them about what you need – but there’s never been people in place to facilitate that. Teachers don’t have the time, the administration doesn’t have the time, so bringing in a person like me to help with that is a huge benefit because no one else has to take away from their job.

Just talking to the businesses and figuring out what they need right now, finding those pain points. A bunch of people are about to retire in, for example, advanced manufacturing and skilled trades with no one to replace them. So, knowing things like that is really important when you’re looking at how to get 2,000 students jobs within four years. Just knowing where those market deficiencies are, and things like that, is definitely good to know when you’re training a student to enter the real world.

Whats a lesson youve already learned or something you would do differently in the future?

I think one thing I would have done differently would be adding deadlines for when I need things from partners. Procrastination doesn’t go away just because people aren’t in school anymore, and we’re never going to be the number one priority for our businesses, so giving them a deadline and constant reminders is always necessary. Secondly, I think it will just be easier in the future once we have good examples. It’s hard to start from scratch when we’re using examples from districts in Iowa and Indiana and things like that. I think having our own success stories will be really beneficial to moving forward, and we may even have some projects that are evergreen. Soon we will have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t because we’re going to fail along the way. And everyone has been made aware of that and hopefully everyone is comfortable with that.