By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Public education is getting a makeover in South Carolina, and church leaders are playing a prominent role, thanks to a 20-year ecumenical partnership and a new joint initiative to help teach children living in poverty.
Last November, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the legislature must reform its education funding system to provide for long-neglected schools in poor, rural districts. For guidance, key lawmakers and state education officials have been turning to Bishop W. Andrew Waldo of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, among others, to gather insight into what’s needed and what’s possible.
“People have reached out to us,” said the Rev. Susan Heath, coordinator of Bishops’ Public Education Initiative, a year-old project of Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist (LARCUM) bishops in South Carolina. “They’re having hearings around the state. They’re asking me if I could get clergy from around the state to testify at these hearings, which I did.”
Clergy have a platform largely because of the initiative, which grew out of the bishops’ 20-year partnership to forge a shared Christian witness in the state. The initiative aims to mobilize resources, including 500,000 local church members, to address the state’s education crisis by bringing support to where it’s needed most.
“Crumbling buildings, inadequate funding, and low expectations mark too many districts at a time when a Twenty-first Century economy demands more of our people,” the bishops wrote in an April 2014 pastoral letter that was read in aloud on a Sunday in every congregation of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina.
“We ask our congregations — as well as all people of good will — to offer what we can to lift up our schools and those students who face hurdles to reach the best they can achieve in their education.”
The initiative gained traction at first by taking inventory of what congregations are already doing across the state to support public education. Some have partnerships with local schools, and deploy volunteers to provide what’s needed.
But many needs have long gone unmet, and that’s where the initiative’s pilot projects come in. The hope is to pioneer replicable programs and scale them up statewide.
Camp Air debuts the week of June 8 at Camp Gravatt, an Episcopal facility in Aiken, South Carolina. Drawing on a 12-year-old model from the Diocese of Lexington (Ky.), Camp Air will give intensive reading instruction and lots of fun outdoor opportunities to rising fifth and sixth graders who are reading well below grade level. If reading becomes a bit more enjoyable or “cool” in their eyes, then the camp will have done its job.
Key to Camp Air’s success will be efforts of volunteers from LARCUM congregations in the region. If all goes well, similar camps will take root in coming years around the state as the initiative spreads know-how and mobilizes local congregations for the mission.
Another pilot program, called “Reading Matters,” has since January provided training and placement for 75 literacy tutors at five underperforming schools in Richland County. Many of the tutors, who work primarily with first- and second-graders, come from LARCUM congregations. Others have ties to local Pentecostal, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Tutors pledge to give one hour a week until school lets out for the summer.
“Many of the people who are tutoring are people whose children are grown or are not in the schools that we are serving,” Heath said. “They would never have had the opportunity to set foot in these schools without some orchestration. It’s eye-opening.”
The scaling up has already begun. This fall, Reading Matters is projected to have 150 tutors spread across 15 schools. And it’s not likely to stop there.
“I hope to be able to replicate this method of getting into the schools around the state,” Heath said, adding that she’ll prepare a report that explains the process. “I will go to people in other parts of the state and say, ‘This is what we did in Richland County. Perhaps this will be useful to you.’”
Image by wallyir, via morgueFile