Churches and schools partnering to work with at-risk kids

Students at Tampa’s Kimbell Elementary School have traditionally faced challenges that can extend far beyond the classroom. More than 90 percent come from homes that are considered economically disadvantaged. Many receive free or reduced lunches.

Students regularly score much lower than the state average on tests for math and reading. Teachers can feel overwhelmed by the obstacles, and students who fall behind in the early grades can find it difficult to catch up as they get older.

The partnership between Temple Terrace UMC and Kimbell Elementary in Tampa is part of a Florida Conference initiative to “over-invest in the young.” Principal of Kimbell Elementary, Dave McMeen (left), and TTUMC Pastor Dr. St. Clair D. Moore.

That’s where the congregation of Temple Terrace United Methodist Church is trying to make a difference through a volunteer program that follows its mission of being an instrument of hope in the community.

TTUMC is one of hundreds of churches in the Florida Conference with outreach programs to public schools. These efforts have the full support of Florida Bishop Ken Carter.

“For the last couple of years, Bishop Carter has been talking with the cabinet and conference leadership about the importance of over-investing in the young,” Conference Director of Missional Engagement Clark Campbell-Evans said.

“This initiative by Bishop Carter to encourage every local church to partner in some way with a school where at-risk children are attending is taking the power of our connectional church and helping us laser-focus on surrounding children with services that will enhance their education, development and growth,” Campbell-Evans said.

The assistance is gratefully received by Hillsborough County Public Schools, which has similar partnerships with churches from many denominations.

“The service that all these programs bring is really appreciated,” School Board member Cindy Stuart said. “Kimbell is a school with great need, and at schools like this there can be a lack of heavy parental involvement through PTAs, Dad’s clubs or things like that.

“These schools look to the community for that kind of support. The volunteers are kind of substitutes for the traditional PTA core. Parents often can’t be as involved because they’re working two jobs or have other kids at home that they have to care for,” Stewart said. “So, the people from the churches come and read to the students, help with math or do big projects like clean-ups. The principals really appreciate that. So do I.”

This is the first year of the partnership between Kimbell and the Temple Terrace church; previously, TTUMC provided help and support for Riverhills Elementary.

“The ministry fostered many measurable, positive results. Members of our church tutoring the kids once a week was positive. Providing school supplies and book bags to the kids in need was positive,” TTUMC Pastor Dr. St. Clair D. Moore said.

“Some teachers came to one of our Christmas performances, and that was positive and connecting,” Moore said. “Giving the teachers gifts of appreciation on Teacher’s Appreciation Day was positive.”

Volunteers undergo training and background checks before being cleared to work with students. The idea is to supplement teachers by providing individual help to those students who need it most.

Members of the congregation also show support for teachers by sending notes of caring and appreciation for the work they do.

“Our teachers might have 15 students in a classroom, and that can make it hard to give extra attention to those who need it. The volunteers were able to work one-on-one with students in ways our regular teachers couldn’t,” Riverhills Assistant Principal Alesha Looper said.

“They would read to the students. They would work with them on math. I could see the students becoming more confident because they knew they could talk to these people without being evaluated,” Looper said. “That mattered a lot because some of them feel like when they talk to their teachers, they are being evaluated all the time. This helped them relax.”

Riverhills, located just a few miles from the TTUMC campus, was considered an “F” school by the Florida Department of Education when the partnership began four years ago. It paid immediate benefits.

Hundreds of Florida Conference churches provide outreach to area schools. In this photo, Van Dyke UMC supports student achievement and well-being at Mort Elementary.

Looper stated that by the end of the last school year, it had improved to within a few points of a “B” and now is a magnet school.

That improvement led Pastor Moore to shift the partnership to Kimbell.

“Kimbell Elementary School was chosen because of the great need,” Moore said. “Their test scores were extremely low and, more importantly, the principal was eager to connect the school to the broader community.”

It takes time to build an effective partnership and earn the trust of teachers and administrators at a given school. With that in mind, TTUMC is following the blueprint it used at Riverhills – start slowly and eventually work into mentoring and other programs.

“This created an atmosphere of grace and forgiveness where our congregation members were greeted warmly and thanked profusely when we left.  Our plans are to carry forth this same idea with Kimbell,” TTUMC Program Coordinator Gina Randolph said.

Randolph was a member of the church’s mission team when the program was first proposed and was a natural for the task.

“Having been an educator in the Hillsborough district for 36 years, I felt that I could offer a unique perspective,” she said. “I could relate to and understand the concerns of the teachers, as well as understand what students need to be successful and thrive.”

Did it work?

Just ask Looper, the Riverhills assistant principal.

“It was great,” she said. “I would give it an A-plus.”

The outreach will continue to be a vital part of the Florida Conference’s ministry.

“We have the opportunity to reach out into our communities across the Florida peninsula to support the schools who are on the front lines with our children,” Campbell-Evans said.

He then remembers going to listen to a new musician who was playing in a venue near his seminary and the words of a song she wrote: “Raising children may not always be the thing we do best, but it is surely one of the best things we do.”


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