“So many of the heartbreaking issues facing our families and communities are a direct result of the opportunity gap. For generations, some families have had more access to resources than other families. It will take generations to bridge, narrow and eliminate this gap. This is why it is so important for schools and congregations to join together. They both work for the common good of the community for the long haul—for generations. – Rev. Lisa Degrenia, pastor, Trinity United Methodist Church, Sarasota.
Statistics tell the beginning of this story. According to the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research, 10.7 percent of all children in Florida are in “deep poverty.” Aside from the obvious health implications, childhood poverty affects their growth in reading; they have fewer books at home.
Students who achieve higher reading levels are likely to stay in school longer and be more successful there. Successful students tend to get better jobs. Students with better educations become adults with an enhanced chance to break the cycle of poverty in their families.
Recognizing an opportunity to help, Bishop Ken Carter set a priority that United Methodist churches in the Florida Conference partner with public schools to help break the cycle.
“He felt like … there’s no reason why all of our churches cannot be a partner in some way with the schools to help them,” Conference Director of Congregational Vitality Janet Earls said.
She was asked to work with the Office of Missional Engagement on the school-church initiative. Their efforts resulted in the Conference scheduling training to teach churches how to partner with their local schools.
The initiative began over a year ago when Carter invited Tammy Pawloski to speak at a pre-Annual Conference event. She is the director of a center at Francis Marion University in South Carolina dedicated to preparing teachers to work with impoverished children.
Earls’ interest was piqued because, as a Guardian ad Litem volunteer, she has witnessed the types of scenarios Pawlowski referenced.
“Children who are at poverty level don’t have as much access to books as children who are above poverty level,” she said, adding that many families she works with are transient, moving often in search of improved employment opportunities and better places to live. Forced to travel light, books are not a priority.
“(Pawloski is) saying if we can do something like keeping books in the hands of children, then we can make a difference in their reading level,” Earls said.
What’s different about this training is that organizers are asking churches to register and bring teams, not just send one or two individuals. The teams are asked to do some prep work before the event.
“Our Kids Training Plus” is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando. The cost is $25 per person; maximum is $75 per church. Childcare will be provided for $10.
Lynette Fields, executive director of community transformation at St. Luke’s, says training teams instead of individuals or pairs helps churches maintain momentum and achieve their goals.
"We're trying to make a different kind of training, which builds up the expectation that people can leave with an action plan," Fields said.
The training originally was scheduled for last fall but was canceled because of Hurricane Irma.
|Tamia Jones (left) and her mentor Sharon Acton (right)|
In a typical partnership scenario, school teachers and guidance counselors identify students who need help with reading or writing and those needing emotional support. The mentor and student meet during school hours.
Earls says she found one hour a week in her busy schedule to mentor a child who needed emotional support. But she says the primary need is help with reading.
The mentor program at New Covenant UMC in The Villages, which is about to enter its fifth year, has 55 mentors and 55 mentees at Sumter County schools, including its first graduating seniors.
That’s an amazing number.
“I absolutely know that the mentor-mentee relationship is not going to end when they graduate. The mentors are invested into these kids’ lives and the kids—especially those who have had relationships for four or five years—are invested in their mentors’ lives and they reach out to them,” said Anne Foote Hill, director of church administration at New Covenant.
The New Covenant program began with potential mentors from the church going through background checks, child protection training and mentor training. They were paired with eighth graders from all walks of life. Initial trust is important.
Mentors make a five-year commitment. They move up with the student each year until the student graduates.
Hill said schools give the church ample feedback on the difference the program makes. That includes progress students achieve regarding behavior, grades and reaching higher levels of maturity.
“It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Hill said.
Rookie mentors often don’t believe they are making a difference, but Hill encourages them to see it through, and the results often are tangible.
“The first year is about developing the relationship,” Hill said. “They’ve got to know that they can trust you and, most importantly, that you are not going to disappear from their lives.”
The goal of training is to offer churches new to the program best practices to get started and to help existing school-church partnerships do more.
Degrenia is excited about seeing congregations embrace partnering with their local schools for more than “resourcing.”
Yes, school supplies and teacher appreciation and money for a new playground are important, but she said more can be done.
“We can embrace the beauty of betterment: mentoring and tutoring and building up parents and educators,” she said.
“We can embrace the power of development: joining our voices together for much needed public policy changes and advocacy.”
Anyone interested in attending Our Kids Training Plus can register by clicking here.
—Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.