Metro Atlanta churches, schools team up to boost student achievement

Like so many others, the Rev. Darryl Roberts recoiled in horror the day a gunman forced his way into McNair Discovery Learning Academy intent on opening fire, only to be talked into surrendering by an office worker.

Inspired by the elementary school’s courageous response to the event in August, Roberts’ Mount Welcome Missionary Baptist Church recently gave close to $5,000 to help McNair buy computers and other supplies needed to establish a planetarium at the DeKalb County school.

“I’m hoping … it turns into a long-term partnership,” said Roberts, adding that church members plan to mentor and tutor students at the school. “Perhaps other churches and organizations that don’t have school partnerships will support McNair or similar schools in their communities with the goal of closing the achievement gap and promoting educational excellence.”

A growing number of religious groups are partnering with at-risk and other schools throughout metro Atlanta, giving them money and other resources to help boost student achievement.

While supporters of the practice say schools need the extra help, some question whether public schools and religious groups can work together without infringing on the spiritual beliefs of students or staff or violating the First Amendment, which prohibits the government establishment of religion.

McNair principal Brian Bolden said he was moved by Mount Welcome’s efforts to help the school, which had never before partnered with a church. Bolden and other educators, parents and students from McNair attended a service on Dec. 8 at Mount Welcome, where the church made its monetary donation.

“We have the funds in our hands right now where we can begin the construction of the vision we have” to create a planetarium, said Bolden.

Other churches are also forming connections to schools, due in part to a recently launched effort by Cedric Alexander, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer of public safety, to recruit ministers to help struggling students.

As part of the initiative, churches are creating after-school programs to help troubled teens whose truancy or troubles with the law are likely to lead them to prison rather than graduation.

“The kids will come in (to churches) and they have mentoring and people there to help them with homework, … all the things that are essential for these kids to be given a further chance,” Alexander said. “When they get out of school, they have somewhere else to go than maybe just hang out on the block for a few hours.”

Don Ezell, a youth pastor at Turner Chapel AME Church in Marietta, said the church has formed a partnership with Hickory Hills Elementary to mentor students and help them with homework.

For the past few years, the church has also voluntarily offered a prep course to help students get ready for the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the state’s standardized exams.

Every fall, Turner Chapel also hosts a college fair at the church, which draws close to 500 high-schoolers and representatives from about 60 colleges and universities from across the country.

“We’re a church, so we’re very interested in the spiritual side,” Ezell said. “But we want to make sure the child is getting to be a whole person, making sure they have equal access to everything.”

Arthur Farnsley, a religious studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said religious groups can be great resources to schools — with the two entities often sharing similar missions — though the relationships could also be problematic.

“There is always the risk that congregations will evangelize or proselytize,” Farnsley said. “It’s pretty clear in court decisions, public schools are not going to be able to allow that.”

“There’s a line, and where it is is not always 100 percent. … In some communities it gets fudged a little. There’s a line you can’t cross with proselytizing and evangelizing. I think that’s what schools have to be responsible to taxpayers for.”

Metro area schools and churches that have partnered say so far the relationships have worked to both their benefits.

In Fulton County, school Superintendent Robert Avossa launched a faith-based initiative nearly two years ago aimed at connecting churches, synagogues and other religious groups with schools.

“We’re not looking to convert kids,” Avossa said. “This is about getting caring, loving adults to help us with the job that we have, particularly with our lowest-achieving kids.”

“I can’t solve these issues by myself,” he said. “We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough money and resources. … We need our faith community, we need our business community, we need our parents.”