Given the challenges facing our schools, many congregations see an opportunity to help through forming partnerships.
It certainly makes sense. In any neighborhood, but especially in small towns or economically challenged urban settings, schools are often a mainstay of community health. In poor neighborhoods, a thriving school can form a haven for families that are struggling financially and emotionally just to “hold it together.” In small towns, schools often form a vital hub for information, resources and community.
Partnering with a “Persistently Struggling” School
The Near Westside of Syracuse (pop. 12,000) with over 50% of its residents living below the poverty line, is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. The community is diverse: one-third black, one-third white and one-third Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican).
For years a small church on the Near Westside has been in partnership with a struggling elementary school located right across the intersection. Brown Memorial United Methodist Church took advantage of its location to build relationships with teachers and administrators at Delaware Elementary School. Given its location in a poor neighborhood, the Delaware School has never had adequate financial resources to do its job. For years the school has been designated “persistently struggling,” the state’s lowest designation, due to low scores on standardized tests.
The partnership grew out of a friendship between a social worker at the Delaware school, a social worker at Brown and the church’s pastor.
Here’s what they are doing together:
- The church offers a mentoring program, held two weekday evenings per week, to provide assistance for students in reading, math and other subjects. Volunteers are drawn not only from this small church, but from surrounding suburban churches and nearby universities.
- Twice a year the church’s Clothes Closet opens its basement doors to school students and their families—everything free for the taking.
- During National Teacher Appreciation Week in the first week of May, church members prepare a simple brunch for teachers taking their break, and spend the morning visiting with teachers when they arrive.
- Every year at the school’s sixth grade graduation, the church offers camperships for two students, free tuition for a week at a local church camp, which is usually awarded to children who did well in science. For some of these students, summer camp offers their first opportunity to explore the natural world outside the confines of the city.
Writing about school partnerships in The Parish Paper, Cynthia Woolever suggests that to avoid faltering, it helps to start small by partnering with “one classroom teacher, one school principal, or the parent leaders in a classroom.” “Long-term success,” she writes, relies on careful thinking about sustainability, accessibility, and scalability. In other words, if our efforts succeed, will we be able to meet future needs without exceeding available resources?”
Yet relationships matter even more than resources. Woolever notes, “The successful initiative is not about starting a new program—it is about beginning a relationship with others in your community.”
 Information provided by my wife, the Rev. Marti Swords-Horrell, who served as pastor of Brown Memorial UMC until 2014.
 Cynthia Woolever, “Back to School: How Churches Can Partner with Local Schools,” The Parish Paper, Sept. 2014 (Vol. 22, No. 9).
Photo: Crossing guard, jeweledlion. Taken Oct. 5, 2007. Flickr Creative Commons.