For years local churches and community groups have rallied to provide supplies and backpacks for schools, especially those in areas where poverty is the norm and students live in non-English speaking households. These acts of generosity are welcome and fill a financial gap many families cannot bridge themselves. But there is much more churches and communities can do to support their local schools.
The Importance of School Connections to Churches and the Community
Educators in even the wealthiest neighborhoods make a substantial financial investment in their students every year. No matter how fancy the homes are, daily school supplies and snacks for students are often provided without question by teachers. Therefore, generous contributions of beginning-of-year supply needs by local religious and civic organizations are always welcome.
The benefits of furthering these connections to include personal interaction between church attendees or community members, however, makes a real, lasting difference in both the success of the school and the social/emotional growth of individual students.
Overcoming the Effect of Poverty on Academic Success One Student at a Time
Keeping students in school is a challenge in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. However, a 10-year study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that “89 percent of students in poverty who did read on level by 3rd grade graduated on time.” Unfortunately, given the other hardships faced by these students, like hunger and a chaotic home life, it is difficult for one teacher to adequately support an entire classroom of non-readers.
In 2013, Donna Gaines, wife of Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines, created Arise2Read and brought fellow church members into her local Memphis elementary school to read with children in second grade. The initiative expanded, and by 2017, sight-word reading success went up 142 percent in 13 grade schools in Memphis.
The Value of Personal Connections With Students
In recent research regarding the consequences of poverty, a key point in the summary is that “those experiencing poverty show significantly lower levels of confidence in their own ability to succeed. This has negative physical and psychological health consequences, along with reduced educational and professional attainment.” As students grow up in poverty, their interest in school will naturally decline as they perceive themselves as less capable. Their view of the value of education is skewed as they see little to which they can aspire.
This lack of confidence is, once again, difficult to counteract when teachers are facing increasing academic demands, including preparation for high-stakes testing and more stringent adherence to state and national grade-level standards. Even the most devoted teachers do not have sufficient time to give every student the attention they need to stay engaged.
Holland, Michigan-based Kids Hope USA creates partnerships between churches and schools, finding volunteers to mentor elementary children. The faith-based organization places emphasis on reliability, or faithfulness, because, as founder and executive director Virgil Gulker says “these children must not be abandoned by another caring adult.” In addition, a unique hallmark for this organization is that mentors are allowed to work with only one child. The question most asked by students who see a mentor on a regular basis is, “How many other kids do you see at my school?” Gulker says, “@These kids can’t believe they have sufficient value to have someone come into their life week after week.”
Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness and Those in Foster Care
Students who are homeless and those who are in the foster care system are often reluctant to reveal their circumstances for fear of ridicule. In addition, they are more likely to find themselves in even more traumatic situations, such as physical or sexual assault as well as hunger.
For these students to receive the services they need, they must first be identified by caring adults like teachers, social workers or counselors. And, most students in these circumstances will not speak up about their needs until they feel safe and protected. Schools can provide this safe space and help these students connect with the appropriate agencies and support services in the community.
Although providing a secure physical environment is the first step required to support these students, academic achievement is key to long-term success. According to Justin Lang and David J. Johns of the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans, schools and communities can work together to “provide homeless and foster care youth with the support required to graduate on time with the skills, experiences and credentials required to be successful in college or a career in the global 21st-century labor market.” This will be accomplished by providing for their physical needs as well as supporting them academically and emotionally with intensive tutoring and consistent mentor connections.
The Importance of Community Involvement
One of the best reasons to involve the community in the day-to-day work of the school is to help students understand why they are learning what they are learning. When learning is done in isolation, the subject matter may seem irrelevant to students’ lives.
By asking local business and community groups to invest time and resources in local school curricula and projects, students will see the community not just as a home town, but also as a representation of the real world with real problems and real job opportunities. In addition, connecting students with the elderly, like those in retirement homes, who have life experience and knowledge will add yet another layer of support to students who may not have generational family connections.
The untapped financial, experiential and concrete resources provided to the schools by local communities and churches could be the difference between staying engaged and dropping out for students at risk. When students see authentic investment by people and organizations that have no ulterior motive, they see their own potential in the world. The hours and dollars given to local schools by communities and churches never go to waste.
Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Elementary Education program.