‘What Do You Most Need?’

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Children at Boston’s Blackstone Innovation School need a lot more help than their thinly stretched teachers can provide. Only 3 percent of students in this K-5 school are proficient in science; 68 percent are not solving simple science problems. A mere 17 percent show proficiency in English.

Teachers do not have time for one-on-one tutoring, and until a few years ago the science books in children’s hands were half a century old. Fixes to these stumbling blocks would have to come from outside.

“On a basic level, we’re just trying to get people to come to school,” says assistant principal Allyson Hart.

For the extra help, Blackstone children rely on a nearby neighbor, St. Stephen’s Church, and its supporting network of 55 suburban Episcopal congregations. This 10-year-old partnership with Blackstone is filling gaps and marks an example of a growing trend: networks of parishes teaming up to support elementary public education.

With its partners, St. Stephen’s operates low-cost summer and after-school programs with tutoring and enrichment activities that cost $1.2 million to deliver. Volunteers staff a school library that’s been revitalized by 10,000 new titles, donated through the St. Stephen’s partnership.

“Year-round support for our youth is what’s going to make a difference in their lives and in the neighborhood,” says Liz Steinhauser, priest associate and director of youth programs at St. Stephen’s. “A better school is going to make a better neighborhood. And that’s going to be good for everybody.”

Around the country, education-focused parish networks are expanding as congregations heed a call to help at-risk children succeed and work together to improve their effectiveness.

Since its inception in 2012, Boston-based All Our Children has grown into a national network of about 40 congregations (including St. Stephen’s) with local public school partnerships. Headquartered at Trinity Church in the City of Boston, the organization uses grant funding from Trinity Wall Street to bring together Episcopalians engaged in this type of mission. The hope is for them to inform and inspire one another.

“As people discover that there are congregations already doing this, that gives encouragement to the individual person in their home congregation who says, We really should be doing something about education, shouldn’t we?” says Lallie Lloyd, director of All Our Children.

Some networks have a special focus. The Augustine Literacy Project, based at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, trains volunteers in the Orton-Gillingham method of teaching children to read. It has 14 chapters in three states, including seven housed at Episcopal congregations. At these sites, adults spend two weeks learning the tutoring skills they need to help students — including those with a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia —learn the skill of reading. Twenty years ago, Holy Family trained fewer than 10 tutors a year. Now the church trains nearly 100 a year and is honing its process for replicating chapters as interest continues to climb.

Tutors experience their reward in watching young people overcome personal challenges, which can be myriad. Debbie McCarthy, executive director of the Augustine Literacy Project, still keeps in touch with 24-year-old Tyrell. She started tutoring him when he was 9, when Tyrell had a father in prison, a drug-addicted mother, and five younger siblings. Adversity did not win. Tyrell learned to read, finished high school, served in AmeriCorps, and enrolled in community college.

“A lot of people have described tutoring as being the light in the world for these children, who are living in a kind of darkness because they can’t read,” McCarthy says. “There is a deep and abiding spiritual underpinning for what we do. And that may help to explain our success and longevity.”

Other networks are organized by geography. In Richmond, Virginia, the Micah Association consists of 130 faith communities, including 14 Episcopal congregations, that send as many as 1,800 volunteers to serve in 23 Richmond elementary schools. Its origins trace to St. Paul’s Church downtown, where members opted 15 years ago to consolidate mission outreach efforts in one location: a nearby public school where effects of poverty loom large.

These networks continue to expand, observers say, because awareness of the education crisis in low-income communities is growing, as is recognition that congregations are ideally positioned to make a difference.

Episcopal institutions seldom have vast experience in working with public schools, Lloyd says. They’ve instead run excellent private schools, which some disadvantaged youth attend on scholarships. Now she finds Episcopalians would like to do more for public education but are not sure where to begin. That’s where networking comes in.

Religious organizations can be great partners for public schools, advocates say, because they have so much to offer. Church buildings, often located near schools, are perfectly situated to host afterschool programs or volunteer training. Mission budgets can help low-income children stock their backpacks. Church members retired from their jobs make fine volunteers, whether they’re listening to children read aloud or preparing materials for a lab experiment.

“Public school is the only institution in society that has to take everybody,” says the Rev. Ben Campbell, a Diocese of Virginia priest who helped found the Micah Association. “That’s a gospel commitment. That is Jesus’ commitment. In that sense, public education is a genuine expression of gospel commitment. Churches understand that, but most other people don’t.”

Episcopal congregations are particularly well-suited to the task of establishing school partnerships, Campbell says.

“There’s something about who the Episcopal Church is in this city,” he says. “Partly because we’re not so doctrinally bound as many of the other churches, and because we’ve taken some initiatives in race relations that others have not, something has enabled us to be a convener.”

Through parish networks, volunteers are learning how to build the trust that undergirds strong school partnerships. Listening to peers, they hear resounding themes: do not approach a school with a strict agenda. Ask administrators what they need and offer to do it. Follow the rules, do not proselytize, and go with the flow when the unexpected happens.

Taking that approach has allowed a working relationship to blossom in Burlington, North Carolina, between the Church of the Holy Comforter and Harvey R. Newlin Elementary School, in which most students receive subsidized lunches.

The partnership launched three years ago with two Augustine Project tutors. Now 18 tutors from the Holy Comforter chapter work with Newlin students. And church volunteers help in many other areas, from classroom support to discreetly distributing food for low-income kids to eat during the weekend.

“The Augustine Project really provided the credibility piece for that particular school,” says Betsey Savage, director of the Burlington Chapter of the Augustine Literacy Project. “Having people come in, work with the school and say, What is it that you most need? really does provide a platform on which we can provide a lot of other kinds of things.”

In the Diocese of Rochester, at least four congregations have partnerships with schools, but they have worked largely independent of one another. That’s changing, however. In 2014, laypeople and clergy with experience in school outreach formed Rachel Rejoices, a group to encourage school partnerships across the diocese. At the fall convention, delegates resolved that every congregation would become involved with prayers, volunteers, and donations.

Networks also give congregations a forum for solving challenges and figuring out how to bypass obstacles when they arise. When a school volunteer from Trinity in Boston recently witnessed a new principal yelling at a child, she asked her peers at Trinity and All Our Children for guidance on what steps to take.

“What are we going to do about that?” Lloyd recalled the volunteer asking. “The consensus in the room was that we can just bear witness to it, bring it back here and take it in your heart. Because, to be honest, if we do anything, he can tell us we aren’t welcome back in the building.”

The effectiveness of parish-school partnerships is difficult to measure since there are many variables in a child’s experience. But administrators and volunteers believe they are helping create a positive environment for learning.

Volunteers who listen to children read at Newlin Elementary in Burlington call themselves “Lucky Listeners,” and they appreciate how the principal adorns hallways with signs that read Love Wins. In Boston, Blackstone administrators say volunteers help in the crucial area of motivation.

“When kids are engaged and you give them more of what they’re excited about, that naturally leads to kids wanting to come to school,” says Hart, the assistant principal at Blackstone. “Our kids are more excited about learning, and they [at St. Stephen’s] can contribute to that.”

Partnerships are affecting congregations, too. As St. Stephen’s has deepened its relationship with Blackstone, the average Sunday attendance has grown from about 15 to about 100 today. Much of that growth, Steinhauser says, is due to the energy and service opportunity that come with the Blackstone partnership.

But, she adds, the congregation has become much more than those who attend worship. It now includes all the kids and parents who come to St. Stephen’s after-school and summer programs. The community keeps growing around a common mission to see its children thrive.

“Our experience is that in being outward-focused we have strengthened ourselves,” Steinhauser says. “We weren’t doing it to build the church. We were doing it because it would make the neighborhood better, and the neighborhood had these needs. But it has built the church.”

Image: Bob Hykes, a parishioner at Holy Comforter in Burlington, North Carolina, created a vegetable garden outside a first-grade classroom. • Photo courtesy of Beth Glidewell

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