The Benefits — And Pitfalls — Of Private Sponsorships In Public Schools

Mark Rowan, president of Griffin Technologies, announces the official naming of the Griffin Academy of Design and Technology at Hunters Lane High School. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Mark Rowan, president of Griffin Technology and a graduate of Metro Nashville Public Schools, announces the official naming of the Griffin Academy of Design and Technology at Hunters Lane High School. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Editor’s note: This story has been updated at 9:30 a.m. to reflect Nashville public schools’ response. 

Two Nashville-based companies will officially be putting their names on public high school academies this week: Griffin Technology, which makes accessories for computers and mobile devices, celebrated its naming of the Academy of Technology and Design at Hunters Lane High School on Monday, and later this week, Aegis Sciences Corporation will do the same at the Academy of Health Science and Law at McGavock High School.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has more than 40 academies across its zoned high schools, which provide a kind of school-within-a-school where students prepare for careers or academics in a specific field. Of those, six will now have company names attached to them.

To get the naming rights, Griffin donated $30,000 worth of equipment and hundreds of hours of training to students and faculty, valued in total at $100,000. Principal Susan Kessler says this partnership allows students to be exposed to the tech industry in a way they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

“Really it’s about preparing our next generation workforce in Nashville to get them excited about this kind of work, so that way they go to college and they’ve got the right major in mind.”

She says the relationship is beneficial to Griffin because it is helping to build the tech industry’s future workforce.

School sponsorships are also an increasingly effective form of advertising, says Vanderbilt University marketing professor Steve Posavac. Consumers are becomes more suspicious of blatant traditional ads, he says, but a company that’s associated with a school can get its name out without that suspicion.

But Posavac says there’s room for problems in this relationship.

“The thing you want to look for is, is there any reason for the school to do anything that is not in the best interests of the students to receive the money?” he says.

In a recent report on commercialization in schools, the National Education Policy Center argues that teenagers are vulnerable to peer influence and image advertising, which companies could exploit to sell products. This is especially problematic when the product is a health risk, like a sugary beverage, but the NEPC also criticized career-oriented partnerships similar to the one in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Sponsorship of schools, their programs, and activities presents an educational threat, as it encourages students to view the world through the sponsor’s worldview.

Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesman Joe Bass says the business partners in Nashville’s high school academies only help students and do not jeopardize their best interests. He says schools have been partnering with businesses and nonprofits for decades without issue. At the Academy of Technology and Design, for example, Griffin helps teachers develop projects based on real-world experiences, but it is not developing standards or lesson plans.

Posavac, with Vanderbilt, says if there’s no conflict of interest between the school and the company, he believes it can be a simple win-win: Companies get name recognition and develop goodwill in a community, and schools get extra funding.

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