Each Tuesday, Pastor Bob Rainey, “Mr. Bob” to Kendrick Elementary School kindergartners and teachers, spends about an hour and a half pulling a few students out of class, one by one.
He sits beside them in a small chair in the middle of a long school hallway and turns page after page, mentoring the students as they sift through story after story together.
“My favorite part is just getting to talk to them. Some have more personality than others, and some just talk and talk and talk. Some don’t want to go back in for whatever reason, but it’s fun to talk to them,” said Rainey, who leads the Central United Methodist Church down the road from the campus. “But it’s all about relationships anyway. Quite frankly, that’s what Christianity is at its heart, at its base. We believe that and we’re glad to have a relationship with the school when they need something.”
The moment is fleeting with children’s books taking only a few minutes to finish, but Rainey’s brief reading sessions are part of a wider effort.
In the Bible Belt of Texas, churches are providing an entry point for community support for public schools.
Officials have identified community support as an important factor in helping Waco ISD’s six struggling campuses, including five facing possible closure next year if they don’t meet state standards.
The district added three church groups as Adopt-a-School partners this school year, bringing the total to 33, said Stephanie Hines, Waco ISD’s community partnership specialist. Waco ISD has also added more than 200 volunteers, some church members, in the last two months, Hines said.
Of the 33 Adopt-a-School churches, 12 work with the five campuses trying avoid closure, she said.
“The kids are learning they do have support, in the local church right down the street from them,” Hines said. “It’s nice to see those members see there is a need in the community and reaching out to help with whatever the need is and reaching across the table, so to speak.”
As executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, of Fort Worth, is pushing for churches to engage as volunteers for schools statewide.
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, get ministers and educators linking together to help our children,” Johnson said. “Ninety percent of our Texas children are in public schools, and 89 to 95 percent of all America’s children are educated in public schools. The faith community is engaging in public education, not retreating from it and that’s what Pastors for Texas Children is all about.”
Johnson recently gave a speech at a Texas Association of School Boards convention about advancing educational needs by creating a “culture of voting” among school employees, according to The Dallas Morning News. He was also honored at last week’s Friends of Texas Public Schools gala in Waco and has met with local church leaders and superintendents, including Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson, to push the support of churches further.
“We have been in Waco many times. We’ve got a number of Waco clergy that are involved,” Johnson said. “Here’s what we have learned in our work over the past four and a half years: If the community, led by the church, can come along side the educator, under the educator’s authority, academic success increases.”
But Johnson, local faith leaders and school district officials are quick to say their volunteer efforts are not about pushing religion. The efforts are about helping students engage in a quality education, the key for upward social and economic mobility, Johnson said.
Educators determine the work volunteers help with, Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.
“It’s driven by the specific needs of the campuses. It’s about the volunteers not coming in and doing busy work, but the things volunteers are being asked to do are driven by the needs of the campuses and the curriculum on that campus,” DeBeer said. “The way the partners are matched up, there’s an intensity and a focus to it that’s all about what the kids need to be successful.
These aren’t volunteers coming into the school to do whatever they want, and certainly not to proselytize.”
Pastors for Texas Children offers a variety of support by gathering school supplies or other items not properly funded by the state, providing facilities maintenance if a school needs a few repairs, and helping send home nutritious food for students on the weekends so they don’t go hungry, Johnson said.
But one-on-one mentoring and reading partnerships and advocacy for public education funding at the state level are probably the organization’s most important work, he said. Even if it’s one hour a week, student performance can improve, he said.
“Those five schools are in neighborhoods that are highly marginalized neighborhoods. They don’t have the community partnerships, the business partnerships,” Johnson said of Waco’s campuses that have been on the state improvement-required list at least five years in a row.
More than 80 percent of Waco ISD’s 15,000 student population is economically disadvantaged. Earlier this year, district officials recognized literacy struggles as the biggest issue facing students in Waco ISD, with only 54 percent of third-graders reading on grade level or higher.
State funding cuts and a constant fight to meet a “burdensome assessment out of Austin” do not help students, Johnson said.
The state cut $5.4 billion from state education funding in 2011. During its most recent session this summer, the Legislature debated school funding reform but failed to pass a bill that would have directed $1.5 billion to public schools and simplified outdated funding formulas.
Waco ISD did not get any additional state money this year, district officials said this summer.
“Turn it over to Dr. Nelson and his God-given authority and professional expertise,” Johnson said. “He knows the needs of those Waco children better than anybody, not senators. Give him the resources he needs. … A public school teacher is a first responder, like a fireman and a policeman, and we need to see a public school teacher in that way. Teaching needs to be restored to the god-given stature it deserves.”
In August last year, South Waco Elementary School received news it had met state accountability standards for the first time in three years, and officials gave some of the credit to support from community members, including Julie Carter, a Seventh and James Baptist Church member, and Bryan Dalco, pastor of One Fellowship United Methodist Church.
Dalco has continued to volunteer on the campus weekly and to encourage others to become involved, he said.
“It’s critically important for a church member, congregation or faith leader to go into a school and show that support and love,” Dalco said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m taking credit, because what (South Waco) accomplished was definitely the principal, the staff and the teachers. But what we offer more than anything is the community support to make sure they know we’re behind them and we’re for them. That goes a long way with what churches and communities can offer.”
Local faith leaders and church members can be part of spurring a revival in the neighborhood support that has been missing for Waco ISD campuses, Alta Vista Elementary School Principal Karmen Logan said.
Texas Education Agency records show Alta Vista missed meeting state standards by just a few points last year, which marked the school for potential closure for failing five consecutive years in a row.
“Generally, as a church member myself, that’s really the call. It’s not within the four walls of a church that we all live in a community, and what better to go out and help our community than helping the children who are our future,” Logan said.
For the last several years, First Presbyterian Church on Austin Avenue has served as one of Alta Vista’s Adopt-a-School partners. Other churches have also contacted the school recently about offering support, said Christy Freeman, Alta Vista’s Adopt-a-School coordinator.
The Presbyterian church members have supplied snack drives and coats and socks. The members, including the pastor, often serve as mentors and even pen pals to fifth-graders in need of confidence outside school, Freeman said. The church and individual church members have also gone as far as donating about $5,000 to help Pack of Hope fight hunger on the campus, Logan said.
The pastor has also asked to meet with campus officials before the start of the past two school years to see what needs the church can help with, which has led to continual support, Logan said.
The power of one person willing to step up can make an impact and create a domino effect, she said.
“You never know the impact one act or one thing you do can have for generations to come,” Logan said.