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Principal for a Day is back with a new focus: college and career readiness

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When the nonprofit PENCIL launched more than two decades ago, fewer than half of New York City students graduated from high school. The organization placed business leaders in schools across the city to wake them up to the challenges of the country’s largest education system and demand change.

Today, the city’s graduation rate has climbed to more than 70 percent, and the business community is looking for new ways to engage with schools. So PENCIL is changing its approach.

The organization is still focused on connecting business partners with local schools, but now PENCIL is shifting toward helping students prepare for college and the workforce. Last year, almost half the city’s graduates did not meet college readiness standards.

“There’s still a ways to go,” said Gregg Betheil, president of PENCIL. “I think the business community has got to step up right now and recognize that its self-interest is dependent on meaningful connections to schools.”

With a new mission, the organization has revived its high-profile Principal for a Day event after a years-long hiatus. But, just like PENCIL itself, the event has changed focus to meet the current needs of schools, businesses and students.

The old model played out just like it sounds: Business heads from around the city were recruited to spend a day in the shoes of a local school leader, sparking personal connections and, often, longtime partnerships. (Less successful matches include one infamous 1997 visit, when Donald Trump spent a “cringeworthy” day at P.S. 70 in the Bronx. Instead of footing the bill for the school send its chess team to a tournament, Trump offered new sneakers to a select group of students.)

This year’s event is different. Rather than shadow a principal, businesses will showcase the work they’re already doing in schools. Other companies that are considering partnering with schools can watch middle school students pitch their ideas for a new app, developed alongside the software company CA Technologies, or drop by mock interviews that students prepared for with the help of LinkedIn.

“Principal for a Day, for us, can’t be what it was in 1995. The idea isn’t to help the city become aware of the needs in public schools,” Betheil said. “It’s really to help folks see a successful partnership and what it means to be involved in a school in a meaningful way.”

PENCIL has also launched a massive expansion of its internship programs, aiming to place 700 students — up from about 200 just a few years ago. Last summer, a report from the Community Service Society highlighted the importance of pairing students with paid internships that can help them prepare for careers, rather than just finding them summer jobs.

PENCIL is still looking for partners to take on students for the summer and is working to streamline how businesses connect with internship-seekers across various city agencies and nonprofits.

“It’s a really confusing landscape.” Betheil said. “We’re a matching organization … Employers are looking for kids, and kids are looking for that opportunity.”

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