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Initiative brings business leaders into Minnesota classrooms

MOORHEAD -- Moorhead Horizon Middle School teacher Jeff Offutt recently invited his electrician to tag along to school.

So on Tuesday, the electrician, Mayor Mark Voxland, watched robots twirl on the floor of a classroom, right by the flat-screen computers where students first created virtual models for these robots.

"Look at that!" Voxland said. "School is so much different from when I went - or when my kids went."

Voxland was there for the launch of K-12 Business Connection, a statewide initiative that will have businesspeople pulling lunchroom duty, tutoring students and visiting classrooms. Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, is kicking off the program in a handful of districts this week.

For business leaders, the venture will offer a revealing look at what it takes to school their future work force. In turn, educators hope the guests will rally behind districts when legislative changes or a local tax vote looms.

"This is really a walk in each other's shoes," said Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher, "and we hope this is just the beginning of a relationship that will flourish for years."

The idea is simple: Educators in Moorhead and other communities will invite local business leaders to shadow them for a day as they teach, answer parent e-mails and phone calls, sit in committee meetings or help load students onto buses. The guests might address a classroom, tutor a student or help out in the cafeteria.

"It's not the red-carpet tour, and it's not a guest speaker program," Dooher said. "It's real roll up your sleeves and get down to business."

For students, the visitors will be a source of real-world insight and career ideas, said Offutt, who heads the Moorhead teachers union. Besides, he said, "When people come in from the community, it shows kids we value their education."

Organizers also hope the new friendships with movers and shakers in the community and state will pay off for schools in these tough times of stagnant state funding. Business leaders might join schools in lobbying for increased state aid or lend support to a local levy vote, such as the $850-per-pupil referendum coming up in Moorhead in November.

Superintendent Lynne Kovash said spending time at the school will help highlight the technology and curriculum needs of 21st-century education.

"People sometimes say, 'It's good enough for me. All I had was textbooks. That's all you need,' " Kovash said. "But things have changed."

In coming weeks, Offutt will compile a list of businesspeople to invite after Voxland, already a vocal supporter of the district, who got an "I was an educator for a day" T-shirt. Those interested can contact Offutt, a social studies teacher, at 218-284-7343 or