Forty-five-year-old teacher’s aide Cheryl Vinings collapsed and died at school while trying to break up an argument between two 5th graders. Her unexpected death in November 2001, later attributed to undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, shocked and saddened the school community at Challenger Elementary in Kentwood, Mich. But it also galvanized a group of parents into action.
“After she died, some parents got together and had a prayer session,” says Ken Raby. “We asked, ‘How can we help our school?’” After unsuccessfully seeking retired volunteers to help guide at-risk children, the group discovered that the answer to their prayers was as close as their local churches. Specifically, they hooked up with a national organization called Kids Hope USA, which trains church volunteers to each mentor a single child one hour a week at school.
While Kids Hope would provide the training and participating churches would ultimately pay for it, the parents had to find the church partners. So Raby used his sales skills to identify 38 area churches and their pastors, then worked with Challenger principal Char Firlik to send a personalized letter to each one. Another parent contacted the mayor, who agreed to send a follow-up letter to each pastor endorsing the program. And when the pastor of a church already involved with Kids Hope heard about these efforts, he offered to host a luncheon, an invitation accepted by nearly half the churches contacted by the parents. As a result, Challenger now has a partner in Unity Christian Reformed Church, and other schools in the area are being matched with churches, as well. “I know it’s going to make a difference,” Firlik says.
Kids Hope USA, based in Holland, Mich., is one source that has linked many churches and schools. At its 1995 inception, most requests came from churches, but now a majority of calls emanate from individual schools or from school systems, says founder and executive director Virgil Gulker, who encourages parent groups to contact him, too. Churches must name a volunteer coordinator and must bear the cost of sending that person to Kids Hope USA for two and a half days of training.
Foremost among the organization’s demands is that mentors be reliable or, as Gulker says, “faithful” because “these children must not be abandoned by another caring adult.” The mentors tutor the children, often in math or reading, but their role is much more personal than academic. “They are there to affirm the child by their presence,” says Gulker, who cites one example after another of children whose lives have been transformed by this single hour a week, such as the Indiana boy arrested 25 times for arson in a search “for proof that someone cares” and who now excels in school.
Mentors are allowed to work with only one child, a requirement explained by Gulker this way: “The question we hear [from children] most often is ‘How many other kids do you see at my school?’ They can’t believe they have sufficient value to have someone come into their life week after week.”
In Zeeland, Mich., it was two local churches interested in volunteering through Kids Hope USA that approached Robert Vander Zwaag, principal of Woodbridge Elementary. “They asked if we had a need, if we had kids who could benefit socially, emotionally, and academically from one-on-one tutoring,” says Vander Zwaag. “I said absolutely.”
Sometimes a church chooses to support a school through donations. One beneficiary of such efforts is Mark Twain Elementary in Federal Way, Wash., which has a large population of recent immigrants, many of them Hispanic and Russian Ukrainian. Eighty percent of students live in apartments, most of which are government subsidized, and the school also gives out the largest number of free and reduced lunches in the district. Years ago, representatives from the school approached churches at which different staffers attended services. Today, three area churches help with school supplies and give Christmas gifts to individual school-identified children, many of whom ask for shoes or winter coats. The churches also help children purchase required uniforms.
Among the churches helping Mark Twain Elementary is Saltwater Unitarian Universalist in nearby Des Moines. Rev. James Kubal-Komoto distributes a list of needed school supplies to the congregation, and on one Sunday each September, he says, “We collect supplies as part of the offering. People walk down the aisle and drop in pencils and pens and binders and folders.” These supplies are given to families by Mark Twain parent advocate Phyllis Savini. “When we register students, we can tell those that need more assistance,” she says. “And we’re able to pass out backpacks and supplies.”
The support in Moore County, N.C., comes in many varieties and from many sources, perhaps because of the school system’s sponsorship of regular “hand-in-hand faith breakfasts” to which local ministers are invited to learn more about school-church partnerships. These breakfasts grew from the efforts of one pastor to seek the school system’s help in improving his church’s after-school tutoring program.
“They were providing a safe place but were not seeing great results,” says Anita Alpenfels, director of public information and community services for Moore County Schools. “We provided teachers to train their volunteers and turned their program around. Then we thought we could do this in so many communities.”
The scope of the activities spawned by this intention is impressive. At New Century Middle School, for example, a group called Carpenters for Christ from Emmanuel Baptist Church cut in a track, saving the school at least $6,000. A county ministry called Sandhills Teen Challenge is planning to complete projects for all 22 schools in the district, putting young men undergoing rehabilitation for alcohol and drug abuse to work painting, trimming, and landscaping. At First Baptist Church, nine members tutor weekly at an elementary school. And for four years, Southern Pines United Methodist Church members have been “special friends” to students at a nearby school; their efforts include having lunch with the children, watching Christmas play performances, and providing money for field trips and school pictures.
At Southern Pines Elementary, where “a number of young African-Americans need role models in the worst way,” according to volunteer director Linda Hubbard, four predominately African-American churches in the community are working on outdoor projects at the school on Saturdays, coming by at lunchtime, and taking children to ball games.
Efforts to establish such connections are also taking shape at Red Bank Elementary in Lexington, S.C., with the PTO playing a major role. Following inquiries from several churches interested in volunteering for the school district, representatives from Red Bank met with members of Lexington Baptist Church to identify areas of need, and training began in December. The church volunteers will help in multiple ways, from mentoring and tutoring to assisting parents who need transportation for school meetings to covering lunch duty for teachers to manning a booth at the Spring Fling fundraiser. Volunteers will also provide clerical support, help maintain the playground, assist in the preparation of student-made books, and teach Junior Achievement classes. In all, says PTO president Meri Goff, Red Bank is gaining as many as 200 new regular volunteers.
While it’s hard to dispute that churches have had a positive effect on their community schools, some worry that the separation between church and state is blurring. In 1998, for example, church, school, and community representatives in Hartford, Conn., gathered for half-hour prayer sessions on the playgrounds of the city’s public schools to kick off a new partnership between the faith community and the public schools—a powerful symbolic ceremony but one that certainly mixed religion with education. At Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Ga., ministers from a Christian group called Young Life and from North Metro Baptist Church of Lawrenceville mingle with students twice a week at lunchtime. Though these men aren’t supposed to proselytize, some students have reported receiving promotional fliers and invitations to attend services, and concerned parents have asked the American Civil Liberties Union to investigate.
In 1999, the federal government officially endorsed public school partnerships with churches through an announcement by President Bill Clinton and a mailing to all school principals of a brochure called “How Faith Communities Support Children’s Learning in Public Schools.” In response, the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to Richard Riley, then secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, that it was “alarmed at the department’s special emphasis on working with ‘faith communities.’” Furthermore, the letter continued, “the department appears to have lost sight of the fact that almost all problems with religion in the schools involve the illegal infliction of religion upon a captive audience, rather than the denial of students’ right to religious expression.”
Those involved in school-church partnerships insist that the division between church and state is respected. “Grand Rapids is a fairly conservative area and not too many people would be concerned if there was a little bit of Christianity in school,” says Raby of Challenger Elementary, “but we had to make it separate.” Moore County’s Alpenfels says that volunteers are trained to keep religion out. “We remind them that this is not about church but is about helping children academically and socially,” she explains. In South Carolina, Goff says that the pastor of her school’s church partner views the affiliation as a business relationship and that “he hasn’t prayed any of the times he’s come in.”
Still, there are reasons to be alert to potential threats, says Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., and coauthor of Public Schools and Religious Communities: A First Amendment Guide. He says there are many ways in which religious communities and public schools can work together, but “sometimes people on both sides of the partnership are not aware of what they may and may not do.” Haynes emphasizes that public schools must not entangle themselves with church affairs, that all students must have equal opportunity for involvement, and that there be no religious requirement.
For parent groups, Haynes has additional advice: “PTOs would be well-advised if they’re going to train volunteers to make sure a range of organizations are invited to participate, not just religious groups. To set up a program to just train people from churches does send a message that we’re only interested in a particular religious community.”
Aware that schools can’t do it alone, Haynes agrees that churches can be very effective—ideally as one of many community partners. And if a child helped by a congregation member does become drawn to the church, that’s not a problem, either, as long as “it’s not something the school or religious community has encouraged,” he says.
What so appeals to public schools struggling to meet the needs of their children with limited resources and a limited pool of available parent volunteers is that churches are often eager for opportunities to help. “Churches within most communities represent a huge and untapped resource,” says Kids Hope USA’s Gulker. Once a connection is made, those efforts can stimulate significant changes. Call it metamorphosis, call it transfiguration—magic does happen, and not only for the children. “These relationships very quickly grow to involve other members of the family or church.”
He remembers how one church helped a single mother set up a savings account and a budget, arranged transportation, and assisted her in finding a job and ultimately buying a house. This powerful family support system, Gulker says, started through a relationship with one child.