GOOD NEWS: Believers at work in the world today Alabama Church Partners with Local Elementary School to Expand Students' Horizons, by Amy Sherman
The members of Southwood Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, are heavenly minded ù AND earthly good. The most visible example of this is the giant replica of the solar system they've constructed for Lincoln Elementary School, where 94 percent of attending children qualify for the government's free lunch program for the poor. Bright stars and six-foot planets bedazzle the eye as they stretch across the 2000-foot black-painted ceiling of the school's old gym. Now the building is a giant science laboratory complete with a salt-water aquarium and terrarium. "The whole idea was to study sea, space, and earth," enthuses Southwood's Director of Mercy Ministries Mark Stearns. "We wanted the kids dreaming."
The science lab's not the only new thing at Lincoln. With help from Southwood and other churches, the school now boasts a refurbished library with a state-of-the-art computer lab and scores of new books. And in a renovated greenhouse attached to the school, Lincoln students are now busy taking horticulture classes.
These kinds of facilities may be standard fare at private suburban schools, but they are a rarity in the school districts serving Alabama's low-income kids. As Lincoln Elementary principal Christy Jensen says, "I don't believe there is any other elementary, middle, or high school in the Huntsville City School District that has anything like this connection" with a congregation like Southwood.
The most important service Southwood PCA has offered to Lincoln, though, hasn't been money or things. It's people. Over half of Lincoln's 212 students now enjoy personal, one-on-one mentor-tutors, thanks to volunteers from Southwood and other congregations, like Cove United Methodist, that Southwood leaders have recruited.
Studies by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that effective tutoring programs tend to have the positive impact, on average, of increasing reading comprehension by half a grade level. Principal Jensen says that reading and math scores are gradually climbing at Lincoln. In the first years of the collaboration, tutors especially focused on the kids' writing skills. Aggregate scores in this area were in the "red zone," well below expected state standards, when Jensen first arrived four years ago. Now, students' writing assessment test scores have increased 37 percent.
> Program launched in 2002
> 212 participants served in past 12 months
> 120 volunteers
> Student writing test scores increased 37% in two years
> PTA participation grown from 6 to over 100 parents
(This ministry was one of 10 winners of the "Partners in Transformation" awards program, sponsored by FASTEN [www.fastennetwork.org], a network that seeks to uncover promising models of faith-based, multi-sector collaborations. Applications are now being accepted for the 2006 awards program. For more information and to apply online, go to http://www.fastennetwork.org/display.asp?Page=2006_INFO.)