SAN RAFAEL -- San Rafael City Schools has become the first school district in the country to partner with an organization seeking to duplicate the successes of an internationally recognized public school district in Maryland.

Members of the group, known as the "114th Partnership," will spend the next 12 to 18 months cultivating a collaborative culture between San Rafael’s education and business leaders, building on efforts to narrow the achievement gap in the increasingly diverse district.

Many elements of the business-education partnership, which is receiving support from the Marin Community Foundation, are still under development. The goal, said those involved, is to foster the same conditions that lead Montgomery County Public Schools to a number of notable achievements, including a 90 percent graduation rate and widespread participation in advanced-placement college classes.

[caption id="attachment_46082" align="alignright" width="211" caption="Jane Kubasik"][/caption]

"We may come from all these different fields, but what is our shared goal?" said Jane Kubasik, founder of the 114th Partnership. "The goal is students graduating prepared and inspired to go on to college or a career."

Ms. Kubasik said that the arrangement under development in San Rafael -- and currently in operation in Montgomery County -- differs from other relationships between schools and the business community in one key way: It leans heavily on cultivating a culture of equals, with both sectors open to suggestions that can deeply effect how they operate.

"It’s not just that K-12 leaders benefit from hearing the voice of business -- business benefits from hearing the voice of K-12," said Ms. Kubasic, former executive director of the business group in Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education.

[caption id="attachment_46084" align="alignright" width="145" caption="Michael Watenpaugh"][/caption]

Dr. Michael Watenpaugh, San Rafael superintendent, said the support of "key stakeholders" in his district was critical. After his own decision to work with the 114th Partnership, he received unanimous support from the district school board, union leaders and principals.

That "high level of support" was critical to success, said Dr. Watenpaugh, who is in his fifth year as superintendent.

Talk of the partnership first began in 2010, when Marin Community Foundation trustee Jay Paxton and Marin County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke returned from a seminar featuring Montgomery County’s former superintendent, Dr. Jerry Weast, in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Weast described to attendees how he and partners in Montgomery County’s private sector cooperated to generate ideas and approaches that, once implemented, had nearly eliminated the performance gap for minorities in the ethnically diverse D.C. suburb. In an arrangement that went beyond the typical internships, scholarships and guest speakers from the business community, advisers worked with the district on efforts like developing measurable goals for student achievement and applying private-sector concepts to attract and retain top talent.

"Rather than reaching out to our region’s businesses for dollars, we wanted their brainpower," said Dr. Weast. "We leveraged our business community to support the entire school system -- as our trusted advisers and mentors."

In Marin, many students were facing the same performance gap that had threatened Montgomery County.

Statistically, minorities tend to perform more poorly than their peers on standardized testing and other measures, a gap that is only made worse by those students learning English as a second language.  Sixty percent of the students in San Rafael public schools are Latino, half are considered "disadvantaged," and half are currently learning English, Dr. Wattenpaugh said.

 "It’s a very different student body than many people think of when they think of Marin," said Dr. Wattenpaugh, who has already implemented changes that have improved performance. "We need to do different kinds of things with our kids to ensure that they have opportunities."

[caption id="attachment_46085" align="alignleft" width="229" caption="Thomas Peters"][/caption]

The Marin Community Foundation agreed to underwrite many of the expenses involved in setting up the collaboration, drawing from a $35 million fund established to narrow the academic performance gap in the county, said foundation President and CEO Dr. Thomas Peters.

"Education is our signature issue," he said. "There is absolutely no reason why all of these kids can’t have an equal shot."

The name, "114th Partnership," is a nod to the 114th meridian, the geographic start of the mountainous Great Continental Divide in the United States. Crossing those mountains, the group says, is their metaphor for bridging the divide between business and education.

The partnership being developed in San Rafael may ultimately look different than in Montgomery County, but Ms. Kubasik said that establishing a core advisory group from the business community is an early goal.

"They should have sufficient stature that they have made these tough calls (like those facing a school district) themselves," Ms. Kubasik said.

Already on board are high-ranking members of Deloitte, Kaiser Permanente, Pearson, Sodexo and UnitedHealthcare. Ms. Kubasik said that she is looking at major business organizations for potential members.

In an early example of the cooperation, Gallup, another partner, is preparing to conduct a pro-bono survey of district staff, Dr. Watenpaugh said. Further data is pending concerning the last six years of graduates from San Rafael City Schools, and the superintendent said that the information will help the group identify factors crucial to future success. Dr. Weast is also working with the district as an adviser.

 "This is an intensive amount of work and effort," said Mr. Paxton, a long-time education advocate who said that many students in the country were graduating with "Third World skills."

"The is the most promising effort I’ve seen to address that," he said.

Staff in the 114th Partnership said they intend to work with three communities in their first year, and up to 10 in the first three years.