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Prospect Elementary School Principal Steve Montgomery, left, and Cheryl Dunson, vice president for marketing at Santek Environmental, show off some of the school's murals by Hollye Kile, some of the results of a BEST Partnership of the Bradley County school and the company.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Back to school is not just for kids, parents, teachers and school staffs.

It's also for corporate leaders and business owners, especially for those who are BEST Partners to the schools.

BEST stands for Business and Education Serving Together, said Sherry Crye, workforce development director for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce and BEST Partners coordinator.

The new school year starts with 43 business partners in 27 schools, including the privately operated Montessori School and Tennessee Christian schools, she said. All Cleveland schools have at least one partner, and nine businesses are partners of more than one school.

"There's only one requirement," Crye said. "The business has to be a Chamber-member business."

Beyond that, what happens during the school year is up to the partners.

"There are all kinds of partnerships," Crye said, "from small businesses to the community's largest, Whirlpool. There's always a school that needs one more partner."

In a few cases, the business may just write a check. But for most, it is an active partnership that works both ways, Crye said.


One example is Prospect Elementary School and its partner, Santek Environmental. Santek, headquartered in Cleveland, is a multistate waste services management company whose contracts include the Bradley County landfill.

The landfill is in the same county district as the school, "so we already had ties to the community," said Cheryl Dunson, marketing vice president at Santek. "This partnership means a lot to us. We are very committed to one another."

The school hosts Santek staffers for a lunch. The kids design holiday greeting cards for the company. They also make special singing and handbell visits to Santek corporate headquarters.

"When I met Cheryl five or six years ago, I told her I didn't want her to feel like this was all about money," said Prospect Elementary Principal Steve Montgomery.

A walking track behind the school was a need, both for the children and the community, Montgomery said. Santek helped build a track that circles around some new playground equipment, some of which also was funded by Santek.

The company doesn't have the personnel of a larger corporation such as Whirlpool, Dunson said, so rather than spread resources too thinly, Santek focuses solely on one school.

"We want to maximize our resources for the good of the partnership," Dunson said.

More partners

BEST partnerships have made visible impressions on other schools, too. SkyRidge Medical Center helped fund a walking track at Black Fox Elementary School. Downtown Designs, an architectural office, partners with Valley View Elementary School, where business owner Doug Caywood went to school.

The newest BEST partnership is Whirlpool Corp. and Park View Elementary School. Park View Principal Deb Bailey said Whirlpool is a good fit for the school's focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, curriculum.

Park View and Whirlpool are almost neighbors.

"Proximity helps," Crye said, "but it is not a requirement."

Sometimes BEST partnerships can take unexpected directions. Montgomery started last school year by spending a day on the back of a Santek garbage collection truck, incognito. No one at the school knew about that until the end of the year when photos of his adventure were part of a presentation.

"I could use that to tell teachers that I know sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone," Montgomery said.

Inspired by the TV show "Undercover Boss," Dunson was supposed to have an incognito day, too. She was going to serve food in the cafeteria. Her day was scheduled for April 27, 2011 - a day that will always be known here as tornado day.