Church-school teamwork helps students

Sunday, July 18, 1999

When the Chicago public schools reached out to the religious community in 1996, more than 200 religious leaders showed up at the first meeting.

They didn't come to fight about Christmas programs or prayer at graduation or any of the other hot-button issues involving religion and public education.

Instead, the focus was on kids — especially kids who urgently needed help.

It's hard to find time to argue about Christmas trees in the lobby when students are being attacked on their way to school. And it's difficult to get too upset about Halloween parties when so many students confront a culture of drugs and violence in their neighborhood on a daily basis.

That first meeting led to others and eventually to the formation of Chicago's Interfaith Community Partnership. As a result, many religious communities now cooperate with the city's public schools to provide safe havens, crisis intervention, after-school homework centers and other programs serving kids in need.

These are simple, straightforward and highly effective initiatives. Consider, for example, the “Walking Men” program. More than 250 men from many organizations — secular and religious — help provide safe passage for students to and from school in high-crime areas.

Chicago school officials make sure that these partnerships are fully constitutional. Working with the Christian Legal Society and the American Jewish Congress, the district has developed First Amendment guidelines that govern cooperative programs.

As I reported last week, there is now a national version of these guidelines supported by 15 major educational and religious organizations. (Free copies of the guidelines, titled “Public Schools & Religious Communities,” are available from the First Amendment Center by calling 615/321-9588.)

Chicago isn't alone. School districts and religious communities throughout the nation are reaching out to one another.

Volunteers from the Methodist church in Vancouver, Wash., help tutor children who attend the local elementary school. The church has also given supplies, clothing, science equipment and books to the school.

The Jewish Coalition for Literacy has trained hundreds of volunteers nationwide to tutor students in reading. In Boston and elsewhere, this effort has been highly successful in raising the number of students who are reading at grade level or above.

In Broken Arrow, Okla., the superintendent of schools started a program to keep religious communities fully informed about the activities, programs and concerns of the district. By treating the faith groups as partners — along with civic groups, the business community and others — the Broken Arrow schools have built trust and support in the community.

This is an exciting and potentially revolutionary trend in public education. Rather than giving up on public schools — as some religious leaders have advised — many people of faith are holding out a helping hand.

And rather than ignoring religious groups or being afraid to deal with them, many school leaders are building bridges of cooperation and understanding.

If this keeps up, who knows what could happen? We might actually stop fighting about schools and start pulling together to make them safe and effective.

We must never forget: Public schools belong to all of us. And successful schools are the key to our nation's future.