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Business Community Takes Lead Role in Building a New Putnam

From left, York Mayo, Cleveland Burton, and J.M. “Buck” Upson

From left, York Mayo, Cleveland Burton, and J.M. “Buck” Upson stand in front of Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School in Springfield.

Construction is underway on a new Putnam High School in Springfield, a project that is being influenced in many ways by input and hands-on consulting from the business community. For those involved, it’s a labor of love, and a way to ensure that the new school is providing the kinds of training that can directly benefit several different sectors of the economy.

Last month, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the new Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School in Springfield, which will open its doors in the fall of 2012. And although replacing the 1938 building is a event worthy of celebration, there is a private project underway which is equally important in shaping the school’s future.
It’s called the Roger L. Putnam Technical Fund Inc. and was started in August 2008 by John Davis of the Irene and George Davis Foundation with the goal of insuring that students and staff in the new school have state-of-the-art equipment as well as support and guidance from industry and business leaders so they can succeed in their fields of endeavor.
A trio of ‘retired’ businessmen, York Mayo, J.M. “Buck” Upson, and Cleveland Burton, have been working tirelessly for two years to recruit people from the business community, forge mutually beneficial relationships, and raise $9 million in donations and/or equipment, which is the shortfall needed to purchase furniture, fixtures, and equipment to keep students in line with today’s technology.
“We don’t want to bring an old school into the new building. We are looking to the future and figuring out what changes need to be made to be more future-oriented,” Mayo said.
School officials are grateful for their efforts, which have resulted in significant donations and a veritable army of volunteers who came on board after touring the school and listening to presentations by students.
“Building a new building is one thing,” said School Superintendent Alan Ingram. “But it’s what takes place inside that affects our students. What’s exciting about this fund is the impact it will have on them, their lives, their futures, and the community. The crux of this [fund] is making sure that the work that takes place inside the building is relevant, is rigorous, and is predicated on relationships between the kids and the business community.”
Putnam’s senior vocational administrator, Fred Carrier, agrees. “Our students are going to work in industries, and if we don’t have vibrant relationships with businesses, we won’t be able to meet their needs,” he said.
Mayo, Upson, and Burton put in more than 50 volunteer hours a week collectively to meet their goals and hope other volunteers will join them. “There is no silver bullet,” said Upson. “It’s just hard work. We are putting in a lot of hours and working as agents of change by promoting the idea of having the business community get involved in government and education.”

Trade Deficits
Davis had thought about forming the Roger L. Putnam Technical Fund Inc. for several years. But when plans for a new school became immiment, he knew it was time to formulate a plan of action.
He modeled the Putnam fund after the Skyline Fund at Worcester Technical High School, which has raised more than $4 million in cash and more than $3.5 million in equipment donations since its inception in 2005.
Davis knows people who are involved with that program and thought it could be replicated locally.
“I was really impressed by the program and by how involved the business community is with it, and I knew it could be beneficial for Springfield,” he said.
“Technology is changing much more quickly than it did in the past, and although the students are enthusiastic, they need to have the right equipment and training.”
One of the first steps he took in establishing the Putnam fund was to recruit Mayo, who worked for American Saw (which was Davis family’s business) for 30 years before retiring and becoming an active community volunteer. He agreed to take over the helm after he toured Putnam in August 2008 and met with Ingram and Principal Kevin McCaskill.
“Kevin told me that, during his tenure, the school expanded from 900 students to 1,637, and the graduation rate went from 29% to 70%,” said Mayo. “The school now has 350 kids on the waiting list. And students in vocational regional schools in the state score higher on the MCAS on average than students in a purely academic school, even though they spend only half their time in those classes. I was so impressed and felt I could make a difference in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of students by helping them get the right equipment.
“Our goal is to form entrustments with national companies who will lease equipment or sell it to the school at reduced prices,” he continued. “In exchange, they can use the school to show off the equipment to their clients.”
Mayo is dedicated to his role with Putnam. “We can’t sit back and criticize if we are not part of the solution,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s what we need to do to change our country. We can’t just pay educators and expect them to do the job. The business community has to make a sacrifice and become involved.”
Mayo noted that it’s critical for the business community to get involved, because over the next several years, thousands of Baby Boomers will be retiring, and those who will be entering the workforce must have the requisite skills to replace them.
That translates into opportunities for students in a number of vocations, including health fields. “Baystate [Health] says it will have thousands of jobs open due to expansion and retirements,” Mayo said, adding that Putnam has an Allied Health Trade program with 140 participants.
“The business community needs to align itself with Putnam and with Springfield Technical Community College and get involved,” he said. “The way to change the world is not by talking, but by having a vision. Ours is to get every business owner in our school because we want to make it the number-one vocational school in Massachusetts.”
Burton is another recruit from American Saw who worked in the Human Resources department as manager of employee relations for 36 years before retiring. “My role is to work with our business partners to make Putnam the best school on the planet,” he said. “We are looking beyond 2010 and are reinvigorating their advisory council. The new school will have four academies and 21 programs, and we are putting a business chair in charge of each department.”
The advisory committees are meeting on a regular basis to talk about what Burton calls “burning issues and opportunities for improvements in each program.
“Our focus is on students because they are the product of the school; we are going to enhance their programs and engagement because our goal is to have them in their career when they graduate,” he said. “It’s a lofty goal, but if we involve business partners and build the right program, by the time the students graduate, they will have gone through internships, cooperatives, and be employed.”

Parts of the Whole
The new school is designed to house 1,400 students, which is about 200 less than the current population. “It will be smaller, so there will be opportunity for more focus,” Burton said. “A lot of kids feel disconnected and don’t feel there is much opportunity for them. But we will accentuate the positive so the negative goes away. If we put the right processes and systems in place, we can make Putnam the school of choice in Hampden County. These young people are our future leaders, and we need to help pay the tab for them, just like someone paid for us. The clock is ticking, and if we don’t do it now, it won’t happen.”
One of the most successful strategies the team has employed is group tours. Over the past 15 months, organizers have conducted 34 tours of the school with 236 business people from 134 companies, and the results have been remarkable.
The tours include PowerPoint presentations by students which show what they are working on and what they would like to have in the school, as well as graphic layouts for the new floor plans.
Mayo said that when Jeb Balise, president of Balise Auto Sales, and four key employees who accompanied him on the tour saw the proposed layout of the equipment in the new school’s automotive-technology program, he recognized there was a real gap.
“He needs 40 technicians this year and can’t find them,” said Mayo. “He just completed his Honda store and invited his administrators to the presentation. They looked at our plans and showed us his plans. There was a gap, because he is looking to the future and we were still in the past. He offered to engage an architect to look at our plans and paid for it.”
The new design, which aligns with current industry standards, will be given to the architects working on Putnam, so they can make the necessary changes.
“This is what happens when you open schools to organizations,” Mayo continued. “It works beautifully and has resulted in donations from 11 companies and a half-million dollars in equipment so far.”
Carrier is thrilled with the success. “The tours have gotten so many people from the business community to become passionate about Putnam,” he said. “They have become involved with the life of Putnam and have opened up their doors to us for tours, internships, and cooperatives. We always had them, but the program has never been this rich.
“Parents and students are also realizing the trades are where the future is,” he continued. “ You can’t send plumbing or electrical work offshore. Those jobs will always be here.”
Another component of the program is to establish a partnership between the business and educational communities, which operate in two different realms. “The business community needs to learn the needs of the educational program, and they need to learn the needs of the business world,” Mayo said.
Carrier concurs. “It’s very important, and you always have to push to try to improve things. It’s very easy for educators to get complacent,” he said, adding that the school is conducting training sessions this summer on new pieces of equipment.

Lathe of the Land
Upson drives from Cape Cod every Monday morning to spend three days working at Putnam. The retired president and owner of Pioneer Tool in West Springfield is responsible for resurrecting the machine-technology program at Putnam three years ago.
He says that, although there are seven vocational schools in the Pioneer Valley, only 50 machinists were graduating from them, which was problematic, since two years ago, the UMass School of Business documented over 8,000 jobs in precision manufacturing in the Pioneer Valley, and a report by Northeastern University projects a growth of 100,000 jobs in that field in Massachusetts over the next 10 years.
“There are many Baby Boomers retiring and there is tremendous opportunity for educated students,” he said, adding that it is their hope that Putnam graduates will go to college, although it’s not required to work in the field. “Almost every shop in the Valley has tuition reimbursement,” he said. “These jobs pay high wages and offer profit sharing and excellent medical benefits.”
In order to get the program restarted, Upson sought help from former School Superintendent Joseph Burke, David Cruise of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and the board of directors from the National Tool and Machining Assoc.
They had little to start with, except some machines recycled from the Springfield Armory used during World War II. But thanks to Upson and a dedicated staff, the program has grown, and this year 16 students were involved in a cooperative, which allowed them to work in the industry during the school year.
Smith & Wesson donated four machines to the program and promised a donation of $250,000 over five years. “They have been struggling for years to find qualified employees, as there are no apprentice shops anymore,” Upson said.
In fact, Smith & Wesson became so vested in Putnam that it hosted a meeting for area businesses last October and asked others to leverage the $250,000 it is donating.
“It was the largest assembly of manufacturing senior business owners in more than 50 years, said Upson. “It was a very successful fundraising initiative, and more than 50 companies attended. The L.S. Starrett Company in Athol made a $50,000 contribution in measuring devices, and ANCA donated a $100,000 cutter grinding machine.”
Upson said local firms are hoping Putnam will host a night program to allow workers to upgrade their skills on the new equipment. “Putnam will become a center for continuing education for the industry, in addition to educating 9th- to 12th-graders,” he said.
Since joining forces with the fund, Upson has also become involved with the graphic-arts program and has reached out to large and small shops to make sure the school’s curriculum parallels job skills needed in today’s world.
“There are plenty of things people in the business community can do if they are willing to volunteer,” he said.
Anyone interested is invited to contact Mayo at (413) 596-8634, or (413) 537-0197, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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