A year ago, the Rev. Bob Rambo met with the mayor of Meridian, Miss., and asked how his church, Central United Methodist, could best help the community.
The mayor’s reply: “Get involved in our schools.”
The 1,300-member church not only took on the challenge, but also asked for the school where the need was greatest. Church members began volunteering at Carver Middle School, a school populated largely with African-American kids from low-income, single-parent households. Some 30 volunteers tutored students each week at Carver, and other church members collected school supplies and hosted end-of-the-semester parties for teachers.
“We were at a moment where we wanted to tackle something and try to make a difference,” Dr. Rambo says. After one year, test scores are already starting to improve at Carver, and the church plans to stay involved.
Many United Methodist churches across the U.S. are following Central UMC’s path—connecting with neighborhood schools as a way of reaching out to their communities. Some churches sponsor annual events, like school supply drives or back-to-school fairs. Others host ongoing tutoring or after-school programs. And some are nurturing ongoing, wide-ranging and collaborative partnerships with neighborhood schools.
“People are realizing that, if we’re going to save our communities, the place to get involved is with our children and their families,” said Susan Pennock, a consultant for Communities In Schools of North Carolina.
“The need is so great in the public schools now,” said Cynthia Werner, a retired teacher and member of Glendale Heights UMC in Durham, N.C. “I think churches are hearing that and responding to that.”
Ms. Werner’s church is one that’s responding. The congregation is mostly Anglo, but the neighborhood has changed in the last 25 years, and is now mostly Latino. To reach out, Glendale Heights started an after-school tutoring program in 2009. About 25 kids ride a bus from Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary to the church two afternoons a week during the school year.
Twenty volunteers—including several retired teachers who are church members—serve as tutors. Other church members pitch in with snacks or donations for school supplies.
“Most of these kids don’t have anyone at home who speaks English to help them with homework,” said Ms. Werner, who directs the tutoring program.
Club Boulevard’s administrators tell Ms. Werner that the achievement gap among Latino children is decreasing, and parents are “clamoring” to enroll their kids in the after-school program.
“The parents are so gracious and so thankful for what we are doing,” Ms. Werner said.
Getting involved in helping public schools falls firmly within the Wesleyan tradition, according to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. (She serves the Mississippi area until Sept. 1, when she’ll move to the Raleigh, N.C., area.) While other churches may operate Christian elementary schools, United Methodists have traditionally supported public schools. And Bishop Ward, whose husband, Mike, is an education professor and former public schoolteacher, is passionately committed to that latter approach.
“When we extricate our resources, we impoverish the public schools in the community, which serve all children,” she said.
Bishop Ward adds that, if churches seek to help people who need it most, often they can easily connect with them by way of public schools in their own neighborhoods.
“Sometimes, it’s as simple as a teacher saying, ‘There’s a child who comes to class shivering, because he doesn’t have a coat,’” Bishop Ward said.
Fletcher United Methodist, near Asheville, N.C., discovered this when church members decided to get more involved in local schools. Before, the church’s youth expressed a desire to help homeless people their own age—but there were no youth or children at the downtown shelter where the youth volunteered.
“They kept asking us, ‘Where are the children?’” said Joy Moss, the church’s director of Christian education.
Eventually, church leaders found them. By getting involved in an ecumenical council that supports local schools, Fletcher UMC leaders learned there were homeless children attending nearby schools—and made connections with the school staff that work with them. Now, Fletcher UMC is part of a countywide effort, along with 15 other churches, assisting homeless kids in the schools.
Their first effort targets homeless youth who are able to attend college, thanks to scholarships, but who need help with textbooks and other extra costs. Fletcher UMC’s youth are organizing a walk to raise funds and build awareness.
By getting more involved in schools, “We learned that we have homeless kids in our own neighborhood who are wanting to go to college, who are ready to break the cycle of poverty,” said Ms. Moss.
First UMC of Wilson, N.C., has partnered with Vick Elementary for 10 years. Church members serve as “classroom buddies”—similar to the role that “room mothers” once fulfilled. They also tutor students, eat lunch with the children, help with the school’s upkeep, and provide treats to encourage students to come to school on time every day. Recently, church members refurbished a room at the school for volunteers to tutor or meet with kids.
“The whole church participates in some form or another,” said principal Beverly Woodard. Vick Elementary’s 300 students are mostly low-income African-American children. Over 90 percent receive free or reduced price lunches.
The fact that First UMC has stayed involved for so many years, Ms. Woodard says, is crucial, and her voice cracks with emotion when she talks about it.
“It’s important to these children that this is a consistent, continuous and sustained relationship,” she said. “The children will do their best and they will be more successful if they know they have a relationship with you.”
When Ms. Woodard took a maternity leave a few years ago, church members brought gifts for her new baby.
“I’ve learned to admire this church and the people that are in this church,” said Ms. Woodard. “They’ve shown us a lot of kindness.”
St. Mark’s United Methodist in Tucson, Ariz., will also celebrate the 10th anniversary of its partnership with E.C. Nash Elementary School later this year.
In 2002, the church “adopted” Nash, located in one of Tucson’s lowest socioeconomic areas. Some 95 percent of Nash’s students receive free or reduced rate lunches. Turnover is high and 72 percent of students come from homes where English is not the primary language.
The church’s involvement began with church members volunteering in the classrooms, helping with reading and tutoring as needed. Since then it has expanded into the multi-faceted “Nash Neighbors” project that has won kudos for St. Mark’s from community leaders. Folks from every part of the congregation pitch in, and the church has enlisted grant money and help from other community organizations.
The tutoring continues, but church members also collect backpacks and supplies for the children, assemble “Snak Paks”—bags of healthy food—to send home on Fridays with needy kids, host “Teacher Appreciation” events and adopt needy families during the holidays, providing food, toys and other gifts.
“We want to live the example of Christ,” said Sandi Heilman, the church’s communications and outreach coordinator. “We want the students and teachers at Nash to know that people care.”
Veterans of successful church-school partnerships say churches should start by listening—sitting down with school administrators and staff to determine what a school’s real needs are.
“You need to fulfill the needs of the school, and what will work most effectively for the children,” as opposed to what church members might assume is needed, Ms. Pennock said.
When churches get involved, it’s important to see the work as a form of mission, but not an opportunity to proselytize.
“We’ve heard stories of well-intentioned church ladies who sent cupcakes with Scripture to the teachers, where that sabotaged the relationship,” said Ms. Moss. In a public school context, she added, “We have to be Christ and not preach Christ. There’s such a critical element of respect for the first amendment.”
A niche mission
While broad partnerships with schools allow for deep involvement, some United Methodist churches have carved out special niches to support children and education.
For years, St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, La., has offered specialized tutoring in math and science—up through high school Advanced Placement levels—two afternoons a week during the school year.
Church member Jere Johnston, a retired chemical engineer, recruits faculty of nearby Louisiana State University, engineers and scientists from local industry as well as members of the congregation to serve as tutors. Flyers advertise the tutoring service at local schools and libraries.
Students come for tutoring from a nearby, low-income neighborhood as well as a few from the congregation. For Mr. Johnston, ‘inclusiveness’ means reaching out to kids who want to excel as well as those who need remedial help.
“We get kids who are failing, and we get those who want to make an A in their AP course,” he said. For all the students, the tutoring serves as a way to build relationships and boost kids’ confidence.
“When a child is failing, and is able to get back up to making A’s and B’s, that’s a great life experience,” he said. “You’re making a real difference, and you know it.”