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When Church and State Intersect for Schools

By Cynthia McCabe

It may be motivated by the Bible, and it may be about studying, but it’s not Bible study. In pockets around the country, public schools are joining hands with an unlikely group—religious community members—to help students academically and socially. Factor in that in at least one state the group nurturing these partnerships is the educators’ union and you’ve got enough fodder for days of head scratching and quizzical looks.

For many, the rules of late have been rigid: religion doesn’t make it past the schoolhouse door. But somewhere along the line that turned into a fear of any communication between the two entities, even if it had nothing to do with religion.

It is what Pastor Todd Littleton of Tuttle, Oklahoma, calls an unnecessary polarization. “Many educators are asking themselves how they can be more effective and widen their support network,” says Littleton. But when it comes to religion and schools “the extreme cases get reported. Fear is our default. Who gets disadvantaged in that are the children.”

In his state, there’s movement to get beyond that atrophying fear, with the purported goal of chipping away at the achievement gap and dropout rates. Members of churches around the city are linking up with students in school-sanctioned arrangements providing tutoring and mentoring. And once a year, going on three years now, public school educators gather at a conference organized by the Oklahoma Education Association to talk about melding religious values and working with students. 

“Our members have great faith in public education and are very active in their faith-based organizations,” says Association President Becky Felts. And with increasing mandates and decreasing resources, schools must educate students under unprecedented conditions. They need help. “Where do you go for community support?” asks Felts. Because of the pre-existing relationship with students, parents, and educators, “the church family can be a natural place for many of them.”

'We're not there to pray'

In Oklahoma City, police Sgt. Wayne Cubit once saw the needs of students as attended to by his department and community churches as separate. “We investigate, they pray,” says Cubit of his former mindset. But after a spate of gang shootings in 2006 and 2007, area ministers and school administrators began calling police regularly wondering what could be done about violence prevention.

So Cubit began forming action teams comprising a police officer and one or two volunteers from local churches that work to keep students out of gangs. Under the “FACT” program, a teacher or administrator identifies a student who appears to be in a gang or on their way—but who is malleable enough to be pulled back from the brink. They call on Cubit to dispatch the team to the student’s house or a local rec center.

While the group that knocks on the door could be considered Mod Squad-meets-God-squad, the visit isn’t about religion or the law. “We’re not there to pray,” says Cubit. “We’re not there to investigate a crime. We’re there to service them.”

The ministers often help get a foot in the door of the home, as they’re typically more familiar in the community. The police and ministers offer the student activities that are alternatives to ganglife. One such meeting revealed that a student who was a fairly recent recruit to the Cripps gang really wanted to try out as a drum major at school but couldn’t afford a whistle. So Cubit’s team bought him a whistle.

Now Cubit picks the boy up from band practice after school, along with his own son, and drives him home. Because of how quickly and deeply a gang can get its hooks into a student, “We don’t have a lot of success stories,” he says of the action teams. “But we’ll keep spending the time to find their gift.” 

The art of church-school teamwork

Knowing that their help could prevent a student from dropping out or push them to academic success is a powerful motivator for the parishioners at St. Luke’s Methodist Church in downtown Oklahoma City.

At the church’s “Studio 222,” an after-school arts program for about two dozen nearby middle school students, artists hired by the church work with the students four days a week. A roster of 75 volunteers takes turns picking the kids up from school in the church’s vans, providing them snacks and assisting in the afternoon’s activities—everything from photography and computer animation to dance and leatherwork.

“Providing hope for these children’s futures is part of the mission for our church,” says program coordinator Julie Robinson, pointing out that participants grapple with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, poverty, and broken homes. “Jesus wants us to go out and serve people in need.”

But that doesn’t mean Jesus should come up in conversation instigated by a volunteer. Their orientation stresses that before they work with the students, says Robinson, adding, “Actions speak louder than words.”

Their actions aided Kenneth, a severely introverted boy who rarely speaks. His work behind the viewfinder in the Studio 222 photography class “just brought him out” artistically, says Robinson. And when Kenneth called Robinson one weekend and asked if he could go to church with her, she obliged. Now he’s a fairly regular attendee. 

An untapped market

Church-school partnerships aren’t just cropping up in Oklahoma, where organizers acknowledge that public opinion isn’t too much of a problem since, as Felts puts it, “churches outnumber restaurants on street corners.” Studio 222 and FACT are modeled on similar ones in Chicago and Boston. Across the country though, educators are concerned about the legality and boundary lines in such arrangements, says Marcia Beauchamp, a first amendment expert based in Santa Rosa, California.

On the religious side, it’s about ensuring that they follow guidelines while still maintaining their religious ideals. On the school and parental side, it’s about ensuring religious groups aren’t prosthelytizing. She advises educators and administrators to draft a religious liberty policy that guides any co-operative agreements between themselves and a particular group.

At its annual Educator-Clergy Conference, the Oklahoma Education Association brings together experts like Beauchamp and educators like Monte Lawler, an elementary special education teacher who wants to start a summer reading program with help from local church youths. Lawler is pleased to see the Association recognize that her spiritual life is inextricably linked with her professional life. “It was refreshing to go to a conference that met both my loves together,” she says. “I believe in public education, but I love my Savior.” 

Lawler, who is also a longtime activist for her local, sees another potential benefit to the Association reaching out to religious teachers: increased union membership and support for the public schools from church-going parents. Too often she hears colleagues express coolness to a union that they perceive as being anti-religion and sees parents enroll children in private religious schools believing public schools to be bastions of anti-religious sentiment.

To reach those groups, “we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are we not doing?’” says Lawler. Church-school partnerships can show that “if you support your local public school you’re supporting your community, including the church community.”  

For pastor Todd Littleton, recruiting volunteers from his congregation to tutor students in reading, math, and writing has meant drawing from a pool of folks who haven’t always viewed the public schools with warmth, he says. “Rather than sit on the sidelines and complain, we’ve tried to be a help,” he says. “Not for the sake of gaining church members, but to try to help teachers.”