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Pencil Nonprofit Cheers Professionals Who Want To Help Local Schools

The group held an informational happy hour at 61 Local in Carroll Gardens on Monday.

Here's a toast to connecting like minds with passionate hearts: Nonprofit group PENCIL hosted an informational happy hour at public house on Monday night in an effort to recruit business professionals to their volunteer program, with a particular focus on meeting the needs of District 15 schools. 

But just because you missed sharing a pint, doesn't mean you can't still help out the half-pints, so to speak.

"Right now we are working with about a quarter of New York City public schools and we know that the need is much greater than that," said Russell P. Langsam, associate direcor of external relations. "Our challenge is to find a pipeline of private volunteers who have a commited interest in education."

PENCIL partners professionals with public school principals to develop long-term capacity building projects to improve student achievement. That can translate to a variety of programs and relationships such as architects designing new school playgrounds, lawyers coaching mock trial teams or investment bankers enhancing math curricula depending upon the needs of each particular school. 

In some ways, the nonprofit considers itself a matchmaker. "I almost think of it as eHarmony," said Melissa Leitman, a member of PENCIL. "We really want to find the ideal partner for the schools."

For that reason, placement is not always immediate after a volunteer applies. To ensure that the identified goals of the school are being met, PENCIL may waitlist an individual until their specific skill set can be applied to the right program. Once that match has been created, however, the participating business professional must commit to a year of investment toward the school's goal.  

Two current PENCIL Partners were at the 61 Local gathering to speak with attendees about their own experiences. 

"PENCIL facilitated a partnership with us, The Street Academy for Financial Literacy, so we were able to initiate a program at M.S. 340 in Prospect Heights," said Caldon. "There, we were able to introduce a 12-week, 24-session curriculum to the entire 6th grade class at that school."

In addition to positive feedback from teachers and helping to improve math test scores by 50 percent, Caldon said the kids were genuinely excited by the material.

"What kid doesn't like money?" he said. "Once you're giving the information to them in a way they can digest, they were into it and I am very proud of the work we did." 

Caldon's colleague Daniel Gershburg concurred. "I'm a bankruptcy attorney so I have people come into my office every day that say 'I didn't know the credit card companies were going to do this,' or 'I dont understand how this works','" he said. "So it's important to me to be able to teach kids about something I care about."

Another successful PENCIL program exists at the John Jay High School in Park Slope. But closer to home, the need is still great.

"There are several schools on our waiting list in the area," said Maritza Rodriquez, a project coordinator who has been focusing recruitment in District 15. "I am meeting with special needs school P.S. 369 on State Street soon and that's typically a hard one to match because their needs are so specific."

Additionally, PENCIL is in meetings with the principal of  to determine future programs.

Perhaps someone from Monday night's meetup will be able to help. Of the different attendees at 61 Local, Rodriquez spoke with a woman who works in translation services about informally advising school councils and chatted with an architect who might be able to do some project-based learning at a school that has an architecture track. But she stressed that all types of professionals should feel welcome to offer their services.

"I don't care what you do," she said. "If you're willing to do something, I will find a school that will use your expertise in a way that will have impact." 

Do you have a skill you think could help area schools in need? 

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