By Heidi Scott
A movement has spread throughout the United States and is taking hold in Spokane. Churches are partnering with schools with the aim to improve the lives of individual students and entire communities. Church involvement in public schools takes the form of mentoring, tutoring, service projects, coaching sports and clubs, providing school supplies, food and clothing and partnering with districts in cases of emergency evacuation.
There doesn’t seem to be one singular origin for this adopt-a-school movement. Rather, churches throughout the nation are recognizing the value in community connectivity. School boards and superintendents are reaching out to church leaders more frequently and with a greater urgency than ever before. Budgetary cuts, inability to meet testing standards and increasing drop-out rates are just a few of the reasons schools are seeking outside assistance.
One of these programs is The National Adopt-a-School Initiative, founded by Tony Evans. It began with 12 men from Evans’ church volunteering to regularly walk the halls of a Dallas school as a way to address the increase in gang activity and disruptive behavior. The presence of these men changed the atmosphere of the school. Later, they were invited to lead assemblies about choices and values. The program blossomed into a massive community revitalization effort, called The Turn•Around Agenda.
In the Dallas area, the Turn•Around Agenda is used in 73 public schools. It offers athletic programs, after school options, technology education, adult literacy programs, parenting education and more. A thrift shop helps fund its more expensive services, including housing assistance and a food pantry. The idea of making a difference in schools has grown into a fully functioning social services operation.
Another program is the Campus Alliance, operating in New York City. Research has shown 60 percent of elementary school students in New York City don’t read at grade level within the public education system, and yet the city spends $12 billion on education. The Campus Alliance has formally adopted many schools in an effort to improve students’ reading ability and more.
Organizers of adopt-a-school programs believe that churches are the natural option for making a positive difference within communities. In the best situation, these programs are beneficial to both groups. Students have been known to assist churches in collecting food and other items for church distribution.
Church involvement is proving successful. In Raleigh-Durham, N.C., the Summit Church’s involvement with a desperately failing elementary school is credited with saving it from closure and bringing student test scores to the highest passing levels in their county.
The SouthLake Foursquare Church in West Linn, Ore., has been credited with turning around Oregon’s most under-resourced and at-risk school. The program, Be Undivided, has set a goal for the nation to match “each of the nation’s 300,000 churches to one of America’s 100,000 public schools.” They have been able to entice other non-religious organizations, such as Nike, to become involved in the school.
But for all the good these programs do, there is always resistance from those who believe that religious volunteers infringe on the separation of church and state. Opponents claim that any religious organization is inherently unable to keep from proselytizing those they serve. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State is threatening a lawsuit against one church, claiming, “The entire situation is outrageous and shows why it’s so important that the government fully and adequately fund our public schools. Students from all different faith backgrounds attend public schools and need to feel welcome.”
Even some church-goers have hesitation about the partnerships, wondering if they are “a time-and resource-wasting distraction?”
In answer to this, organizers quote President Obama who said during his 2008 presidential campaign, “the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Legally, the boundary between church and state is unclear when it comes to adopt-a-school programs. Legal restrictions placed on volunteering in schools are left to superintendents and therefore varies widely from one district to another. Some school districts state that as long as no preferential treatment is shown to a specific denomination, churches are welcome to be involved in school activities. Many have regulations that prohibit requiring student involvement or church promotion.
For the most part, churches are treated like business or civic groups, with standard background checks, training and security measures.
In Spokane, an initiative called Churches Loving Schools takes part in mentoring and feeding kids. Its planning committee has created a map of schools in the region and the churches that partner with them. Anthony Carrollo, executive director of the Greater Spokane Association of Evangelicals, said, “Collaboration among churches is critical in order to see real change in our neighborhoods.”
If you’d like to volunteer to serve on one of the two Churches Loving Schools committees, contact:
- Spokane: Brian Grow (First Presbyterian) at BrianG@spokanefpc.org
- Spokane Valley: Jenni Spedick (Sun City Church) at firstname.lastname@example.org
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