'Sky is the limit’ for school-church partnerships




When Covenant United Methodist Church in Port Orange was founded in 1988, services were held at an area school for about two years.

Attendees benefited from hearing from Dr. Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, based in Orlando, who spoke about the value of churches supporting children.

Thirty years later, Covenant members are assisting faculty and students at the same location—Horizon Elementary School—through a school-church partnership.

That partnership is one of many flourishing in the Florida Conference, so Conference leaders planned a learning forum for this ministry. More than 100 people representing 34 churches participated in school-church training on Sept. 29 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando.

“We were thrilled with the turnout and enthusiasm of the participants,” Pastor Lisa Degrenia of Trinity UMC in Sarasota said in an email. “Schools and congregations are natural allies in the long-term care of our communities. This is where the generational devastation of poverty can make a turn for the better.”

The purpose of the training was to equip churches, at various stages of their partnerships with local schools, with resources and best practices to help them enhance those partnerships.

Janet Earls, director of Congregational Vitality for the Conference, said Bishop Ken Carter last year stressed that churches can make a difference in the lives of schoolchildren.

The September training accomplished the goal of “giving tools that they could take back and actually apply,” Earls said of participating churches.

About one-third of the churches were “experienced and willing to share,” she said, on hand to serve as teachers.

Rev. Rad Orlandi speaks with Round Robin participants about Port St. Lucie's partnership with their local Title I school.

About one-third were in the beginning stages of partnering with their area schools. Earls said the remaining churches were there to observe and absorb so they could do more.

Covenant UMC, Port Orange, was among those just getting started and following a call to action.

“We pretty much were talkers and not doers, yet,” volunteer office administrator Karen Turner said of her church.

Covenant had met with Horizon Principal Gary Harms last year to learn what his needs might be for the school. Harms was seeking in-school volunteers, but the church was not yet ready to make that type of commitment. Instead they made some donations that “blessed the teachers,” Turner said, and helped replace some items that had been vandalized by taking up a collection.

“But we really didn’t dig in deep, like we are trying to now,” Turner said.

Turner and five other Covenant members attended the training. They may have had the largest contingent, she said proudly.

“We always had a strong desire, but didn’t have our volunteer base,” Turner said. “Our desire didn’t change (after the training), but we did get ideas and maybe some motivation to actually try harder to get this off the ground.”

Dr. Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, delivered Keynote address at the Our Kids Training.

Attendees benefited from hearing from Dr. Barbara Jenkins, superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, based in Orlando, who spoke about the value of churches supporting children. 

“She took the chance of tying together the church and the school system, to bridge that gap,” Earls said. “Not many people would be brave enough to do that. She did that in South Carolina, and then she did it here.”

Anne Foote Hill, director of church administration at New Covenant UMC in The Villages, helped plan the training. She coordinates her church’s successful mentoring program with Wildwood Middle High School. The mentoring programs at various churches were cited as activities that may only need to be refined and nurtured in order to grow.

Training task force members presented an array of testimonies. Two New Covenant mentors talked about what the program has meant to them, as well as its impact on the young mentees.

Attendees also saw a presentation about All Pro Dads, a national organization already in some schools, and one by students participating in a school-church program called Arts After 5 at St. Luke’s UMC in Orlando.

All Pro Dad was affirmed as a program that works well with churches just getting started.

Organizers who planned this training now will regroup to determine the next steps.

One will be to follow up with participating churches to help with the small details that make a partnership successful. Turner said one regret is that Covenant’s attendees did not meet immediately afterward as a full group.

Meanwhile, some Covenant representatives met this year with Harm, who no longer needs in-school volunteers. As a newly designated Title 1 school, Horizon has more fundamental issues, such as attendance and poverty.

Incentives to improve attendance, such as free gas cards, have been tried. Covenant may help the school devise new ones. Meanwhile, some children are attending school in dirty or soiled clothing, so Covenant has a successful drive currently underway to collect clothes and other items for the school, Turner said.

New Covenant, The Villages, shares about their mentoring program during the Round Robin session.

“Our congregation has been very generous, donating,” Turner said, adding that next comes the sorting of items to understand what they have on hand. Mission funds will be used to purchase items that fill in the gaps.

It is Turner’s hope that the church eventually will return to its origins, with in-class volunteers at Horizon.

Turner says it feels great because she has long hoped Covenant would be in a school-church partnership. She now considers them “doers, and we’ve involved our congregation, which I think is really awesome.”

Lynette Fields, executive director of community transformation at host St. Luke’s, said the most important thing that happened at the training “was United Methodists coming together from across Florida and sharing their best ideas with each other. There was so much positive energy and encouragement in the room.”

For non-attendees, each of the sessions was recorded and is available on the School-Church Partnership page on the Conference website. Click here to access them.

Turner said her group was impressed with the training and even wished some breakout sessions had been longer.

“The sky is the limit with this,” she said.

—Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.


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