Why NC businesses must find ways to support schools

High school students participate in Biogen Idec’s Community Lab.
High school students participate in Biogen Idec’s Community Lab. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Twenty years ago this month, Biogen broke ground on what now has become the company’s largest manufacturing operation. In 1995, we had two employees in RTP. Today, we’re the state’s largest biotechnology company.

The primary reason we chose North Carolina two decades ago was its skilled, educated workforce driven by strong university, community college and public education systems and the state’s investment in life sciences through the N.C. Biotechnology Center. And we’re not alone – according to Site Selection magazine, the No. 1 factor for expanding and relocating businesses remains a skilled workforce.

Our elected officials are debating important questions about how to invest in our state’s future, and business leaders need to make their voices heard to ensure we have strong schools that will provide the future workforce we expect.

We’re concerned about the direction our state is heading in workforce development. We see room for improvement in key student achievement measures that businesses look at when making investment and hiring decisions. From 1992 to 2000, North Carolina’s National Assessment of Education Progress scores increased more than any other state in the U.S. NAEP assessments are conducted every two years in math, reading, science and writing for grades 4 and 8.

Over the last decade, that improvement has flattened. From 2003 to 2013, North Carolina ranked 50th in score improvement in fourth-grade math scores, and 41st in improvement in fourth-grade reading scores. In 1998, just 31 percent of our eighth-graders were rated proficient or above on the NAEP reading assessment. In 2013, that number was just 33 percent – still much room for improvement.

In 1995, North Carolina ranked 42nd among states in teacher salary, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2001, we had made tremendous gains to become 21st in the nation. Even with recent raises approved by the legislature, we’re still at No. 42, based on estimates from the Public School Forum. Attracting and retaining great teachers and administrators are key to making sure we can prepare our future workforce.

North Carolina is currently ranked 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. We were as high as 34th in 1995.

In 1995, North Carolina public schools received 41 percent of the state’s General Fund. With the recession in 2008, that dropped to 37 percent. But while many other states have restored funding to pre-recession levels, we’re still at recession levels both in overall investment and per-pupil investment in K-12 education.

Will this kind of investment give our state the future workforce we need? At Biogen, we don’t think so. But we won’t stop trying to make it better.

That’s why during the N.C. Chamber’s Education Summit on Aug. 13, Biogen announced a pilot program with US2020 in RTP through which 20 students from Southern High School in Durham will be matched with Biogen employee mentors who will engage students in a year of interactive science, technology, engineering and math learning.

US2020 RTP is a STEM mentoring program sponsored by the Research Triangle Foundation, which is helping us design and implement this pilot. Its services are available to Triangle businesses and individuals.

This program joins other Biogen education efforts including our Community Lab and the Biogen Foundation. Since opening last fall, the Community Lab has served more than 1,350 public school students and 115 teachers. In the lab, middle and high school students get to be scientists as they work with Biogen employees doing business-relevant science experiments with state-of-the-art equipment.

Last year, the Biogen Foundation invested $1.1 million in community and STEM education programs across North Carolina. Through the foundation’s “Ignite the Power of STEM” program, individual teachers and schools can apply for grants of up to $2,000 per teacher and $5,000 per school.

Not all North Carolina businesses can build a community lab or start a foundation, but opportunities abound for business involvement in education at all levels of investment.

For as little as $300, a business can provide a teacher with a full day of science professional development, a nine-week hands-on science curriculum and all of the materials needed to implement the curriculum through the Center for Inquiry-Based Learning headquartered in Durham.

And every business could invite a student or teacher to visit through Students at Work or Teachers at Work through the N.C. Business Committee for Education.

We invite all North Carolina businesses to join us in supporting our state’s future workforce for the good of our state and our businesses.

Joydeep Ganguly is vice president and general manager of Biogen in Research Triangle Park.