Chamber committee bridges gap between business and schools

There is a definite correlation between the health of a community's business community and the quality of its students' education. Members of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce' Business/Education Committee are trying to make that connection stronger through its Bridge to Business Program.

The committee not only works directly with area schools to provide speakers and services such as mentoring and job shadowing from community business professionals, but also hosts and coordinates special events in the schools such as last week's event at Casa Grande High School that brought students from McDowell Elementary School to the high school to learn about Sonoma County's water system and to learn firsthand about what high school is going to be all about from Casa students.

That proved a major hit with both the third graders and their high school mentors, and it also exposed the Chamber committee to educators and other professional organizations who are working to help education. "It attracted a whole team of people who have never been involved with us," said Dennis Hardle, the committee chair. Among those participating in the event were Petaluma Rotary clubs, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the City of Petaluma and several nonprofit groups like the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance and Friends of the Petaluma River. John Shribbs, Casa Grande's environmental science teacher and director of the Casa Native Plant Nursery, coordinated things from the school's side.

"We were able to create some special relationships from the project," Hardle said.

Hardle's wife, Clare Grinsell, is also a member of the committee. She said McDowell School students were chosen to participate in the project to peak their interest in science and their community's environment and to help excite them about continuing their education. "We felt if we could give them some hands-on math and science it might spark their interest and get them moving forward in those areas. We also wanted to give them a little experience at the high school. It worked out beautifully," she said.

One of the biggest hurdles that had to be overcome was the seemingly simple task of getting the students from McDowell to Casa Grande. The school district had no buses and no funds to rent buses. In the end, Hardle and committee member Clark Rosen simply paid for the buses.

Grinsell said the committee made some important contacts through the project. "We learned how to access other donors and participants," she explained. "We learned who we can call on for particular projects."

The committee is now involved in a mural project at McKinley School, working with art mentors from Casas Grande High School, students at McKinley and others to paint a mural celebrating McKinley's 100th anniversary. Committee member Maria Lewis, a new Petaluma resident and an artist, is helping organize the project.

Hardle noted that McDowell and McKinley are only two of the schools the committee has planed events for. "We are open to supporting projects at any of the schools," he said. He is considering proposing having committee members speak at various schools. He is also thinking about approaching the school district about teaching a management course at Casa Grande and he is also chair of Education Day at Petaluma High School.

For Grinsell, Hardle and other members of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce Business and Education committee, it is all about bridging the river between the schools and the business communities.

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