Church/School Partnerships = Win/Win
A church that wants to impact the community needs look no further than the public school
by Nita Thomason
"I was driving through West Dallas recently and barely recognized it," a woman said at a recent gathering of Christian leaders. A few weeks earlier, similar sentiments were expressed among a group of friends discussing tutoring in a Title I school in the Dallas-Ft. Worth suburbs. At a meeting of culturally diverse church leaders in Dallas, there was increasing enthusiasm for church collaboration, and an attitude of hope prevailed.
As the largest recipient of refugees of any US metropolitan area, DFW is home to a population of which 44 percent are first- or second-generation immigrants. The Dallas schools are nearly 70 percent Hispanic and over 20 percent African American. Rebecca Walls is executive director of Unite, a network of DFW churches joining forces to engage and transform the community. She sees these changes as an unprecedented opportunity for churches to mobilize collaboratively in externally focused community transformation.
Hopefully one day soon, every Title I school will have at least one church partner coming alongside it to provide quality education and care for every child.
In 2013 Christians from across Dallas joined together at Park Cities Baptist Church to launch a Christ-centered network called A Prayed For City and began covering the metroplex in united prayer 365 days a year. Churches, private citizens, and government officials are joining together to work for, among other things, improved schools with effective principals leading them and skilled teachers in every classroom.
Walls believes that the single most impactful thing a church can do to positively change a community is to partner with a public school. Unite has already identified 175 church-school partnerships in Dallas and Collin Counties.
"We're in the process of determining what each partnership involves," says Walls, "so that together we can increase effectiveness, build capacity, and encourage more churches to build these kinds of relationships." She hopes that one day soon, every Title I school will have at least one church partner coming alongside it to provide quality education and care for every child.
Schools frequently welcome church engagement. The Turn-Around Agenda (TTA) of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church has become a model for church and public school partnerships as it seeks to rebuild communities from the inside out by addressing moral and spiritual foundations. Utilizing public schools as a primary vehicle for delivering social services, the TTA model incorporates technology and education programs, a family care pregnancy center, human needs assistance, and school-based after-school and summer programs. TTA began as a crisis intervention when a local high school principal asked Pastor Tony Evans for assistance in dealing with gang activity and other disruptive behavior among students. Today their volunteers partner in 61 schools in the Dallas area and offer services as varied as one-on-one mentoring, literacy and computer instruction, sports leagues, and abstinence education facilitators.
Larry James, author of The Wealth of the Poor: How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities, started his urban ministry decades ago when he left his suburban church in response to an invitation to start a food pantry for some of the poorest residents of Dallas. Now with a ministry called CitySquare, James lobbies hard for fair immigration policy. Why? His friendships with many young people who are undocumented have led him to ask, "Why would we want to waste the investment we've already made in these young lives in the form of public education?" James understands that advocacy for the poor frequently involves challenging the systemic forces that contribute to poverty. Certainly the complex issue of educational equity is frequently entangled in the political arena, and partisan roadblocks hinder positive change.
Change is reverberating west of the Trinity River where Mercy Street Ministry leads the charge for community transformation, committed relationships, and catalytic leadership development. They believe that true and lasting change will be brought about by the residents of their community but that sometimes an infusion of hope is needed from the outside. Garrett Smith, Mercy Street's director of mentoring, reports that while many of their staff live in the West Dallas community, their pool of 400 mentors comes from churches both inside and outside the West Dallas area, with many coming from Watermark Church in North Dallas and Park Cities Presbyterian Church.
Trey Hill, executive director of Mercy Street, says, "We believe that community transformation happens primarily through relationship and not through programs. So what we ask people to do is get engaged in the life of a child and walk with the children from 4th to 12th grade, believing it is the long-term relationship where the real impact is made, not just in the student's life but in the mentor's life as well."
Watermark Church and the Village Church are two of a number of Dallas churches becoming known for community engagement through relational ministry. A younger generation of evangelicals is picking up the tempo for change. With less interest in making money and more interest in making a difference, many young people in their 20s are choosing service among the poor as a way of life.
Lindsey Boatman is a single young adult who teaches "at-risk" high school students ages 16-21 at Cornerstone Crossroads Academy, exposing them to the hope and abundant life found in Jesus. Boatman lives in the Fair Park community where she teaches and attends the Village Church, where many young adults have seriously engaged troubled youth in Dallas through mentoring programs and by living in impoverished neighborhoods and developing relationships with the young people there.
Located directly across from the local middle school, Village Church also sponsors clean-up days at the middle and high schools, hosts faculty/staff breakfasts, and invites students over to the church for basketball games and barbeques. "I wouldn't want to be [here] without that kind of support," Thomas Jefferson High School Principal Sandi Massey told the Dallas News. "The outside force of the community coming in gives us this hope and courage to not stop doing what we are doing and not give up on our kids."
Woodcreek Church in a northern suburb of Dallas has developed a vibrant ministry with a Title I school, Forman Elementary in Plano, over the past seven years. Strong friendships grew from the start between school personnel and church members. The partnership includes a classroom academic tutoring program staffed by church volunteers. Principal Tramy Tran explains, "The Woodcreek mentors are what we think of when we think of academic mentors." The church also collects and donates thousands of dollars of school supplies to Forman each year.
The evolution of the church's holiday gift program for the students shows how the hearts and attitudes of the church members have matured through the relationship with the school. Initially Woodcreek members adopted Forman families identified by the school as particularly needy, and church members offered huge bags of gifts chosen specifically for them. Donors enjoyed sharing their abundance, but the Woodcreek team felt unsettled by the charity aspect of the process, which robbed parents of the joy and dignity of selecting their own gifts. Instead the church began hosting a big party for the families each year, where Christmas stories, holiday food, and festive songs created a climate of celebration that all could share in, and gifts were provided in a more discreet manner.
Still, church leaders recognized the chasm between the givers and the receivers. So following the suggestion of Principal Tran, the church moved away from the family gift-giving to providing "parent gifts" for the Forman "store." Each year thousands of dollars' worth of note cards, body lotions, tool kits, picture frames, etc., are donated and displayed so that children can shop for their parents for the holidays. The school uses an incentive program, awarding students with "Falcon Bucks" for positive behaviors such as turning in homework and demonstrating admirable character. Students exchange their bucks for goods in the school store or other rewards.
The "parent gifts" are hot items during the Christmas season. The program encourages generosity in the children, promotes self-initiative, and helps students learn important lessons about the free enterprise system as they "spend" their own earnings on gifts for their parents. In December 2013 three other churches—Legacy Church, Plano Bible Chapel, and North Dallas Community Church—helped provide gifts, and all four churches worked together to sponsor Forman Game Night for the students so parents could go Christmas shopping.
Another way that Woodcreek supports Forman is through the Pine Cove Base Camp sponsored by the Forman PTA. Church members provide scholarships so Forman students can attend this upscale summer day camp experience. Woodcreek also sponsors a vibrant ESL ministry, a strong component of which is the program provided for the children while the adults attend English classes. Program Director Kay Hurley says, "A high-quality preschool environment, geared to teaching toddlers and preschoolers the English language through a rich experiential learning environment, enhances the development of the children's ability to understand and speak English. So when they enter a more formal program, such as Head Start or public kindergarten, they will already have a better grasp of English."
The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas started serving the hungry in the inner city in 1975, but now it provides a wide range of social services, including a program for children. Suzanne Erickson, director of children and youth at the Stewpot, understands that poverty doesn't need to be the future of the children they serve.
"Our program for middle school and high school students includes homework tutoring," says Erickson,"but it also provides enrichment activities such as engineering and art projects that promote higher thinking skills. We incorporate career and college exploration into our programming with trips to Texas universities. We then provide $2,000 in college scholarship money per year for students up to a $10,000 total."
Many challenges remain in the DFW schools, but an invigorating wave of progress is moving through the area in the form of collaborative partnerships between churches and schools, with efforts moving away from charity and toward empowerment. When community sectors such as schools, churches, nonprofits, and government work together, everyone wins.
Nita Thomason teaches future teachers in the education department of Collin College. She leads the Community Impact Ministry of Woodcreek Church.