On Wednesday afternoons, six to ten students from Minneapolis’ Folwell Middle School trek to the church across the street for tutoring, snacks and money management lessons. It is one small example of the Minneapolis Public School’s new and growing faith-based initiative.
Lebanon Lutheran and Central Community churches jointly run the S.A.Y. Yes! (Save America’s Youth) after-school program. During a recent visit, students worked on their Black History Month projects, got a hot dog, spicy Cheetos and red punch and ended their day with an impromptu game of balloon volleyball in the church basement.
During the 90-minute weekly sessions, students earn S.A.Y. Yes! dollars to save and spend. For instance, students earn 5 S.A.Y. Yes! dollars for bringing their homework or bringing a friend, and 1 S.A.Y. Yes! dollar for saying thank you or encouraging others.
Program Coordinator Cassie Stiles said students deposit the money in S.A.Y. Yes! accounts. On the last Wednesday of the month, they buy things at the store using S.A.Y. Yes! checks. The “store” is a table piled with goodies: winter wear, rulers, pencils, note cards, pixie sticks, Kit Kats and more. Most things cost a few S.A.Y. Yes! dollars, but students can save for more expensive items, such as a 225-dollar remote-controlled car.
On a recent store day, one girl bought a scarf, hat, gloves, candy and a notebook for 17 S.A.Y. Yes! dollars. Another girl said she had saved 101 dollars.
Here’s Life Inner City, the urban wing of Campus Crusade for Christ, developed the Biblically-based S.A.Y. Yes! curriculum. Church leaders here have made the curriculum more secular to meet the requirements placed on it by the new school-based partnership. For instance, because Folwell School promotes the after-school program and the district provides students a late bus ride home, the church does not do Bible studies.
The goal is “not to evangelize, but to tutor and develop citizens for this community,” said Russell Grigsby, Lebanon’s pastor.
Negotiating the church-state boundaries is ongoing as the district tries to grow the faith-based partnerships. The district wants to tap the large pool of faith-based volunteers, but without triggering controversies.
A big tent?
Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten recently took issue with the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a public charter school serving mostly low-income Muslim children. The headline read: “Are taxpayers footing the bill for an Islamic public school in Minnesota?” It drew hundreds of comments, an example of the deep nerve church-state issues hit in a diverse society.
The current slate of churches in the Minneapolis Public Schools faith-based initiative is heavily weighted toward Protestant and evangelical congregations.
A list distributed at a January School Board meeting had the following partners: Redeemer Lutheran, Sanctuary Covenant, Bread of Life Pentecostal, Fountain of Life Gospel, Messiah Lutheran, Wayman African Methodist Episcopal, Kwanza Community Church, Fellowship Baptist, Urban Refugee, Central Community/Lebanon Lutheran, Shiloh Temple, Citadel of Hope Church of God in Christ, Faith Baptist, North United Methodist, Christ English Lutheran, Temple Israel, New Creation, Salem Lutheran, St. Olaf Lutheran, Speak the Word, Mount Carmel Lutheran, Proverbs Christian Center, Pilgrim Rest, North East Community Lutheran, Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and Minnesota Teen Challenge.
Other churches in the planning stages are: Zion Baptist, Spirit and Truth Worship Center, Jordan New Life Community Church, High Praise Ministries, New Bethel Baptist, Berean Missionary Baptist Church and St. Bridget’s Catholic Church.
School Board Director Pam Costain asked district staff to be more intentional about casting a wider net in the faith community. “I am very impressed with the work with the faith community,” she said at a Board meeting. “Given our immigrant population, it is really critical that we be working with the Muslim faith. … I would request that we work with all faiths.”
Hedy Lemar Walls, director of youth and family engagement, and Communications Assistant Jackie Starr have spearheaded the Minneapolis Public School’s faith-based initiative. In an interview, they agreed with Costain. They started with stronger contacts with Protestant churches and have a learning curve with other faiths, they said. Starr herself is a co-pastor at the Bread of Life Church in south Minneapolis. Said Walls: “In order to make inroads, you have to have relationships.”
Farhan Hurre, executive director of Abubaker as-Sadique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis, said in an interview he was unfamiliar with the Minneapolis Public School’s faith-based initiative. The Center is starting its own after school program with 200-300 kids, from elementary to college-age students. “We don’t have any partnership with anybody yet,” he said. “We are about to search.”
How it started
The Minneapolis School Board approved a new Strategic Plan in December. One of its key planks emphasizes family and community engagement.
Past district plans have recommended better community engagement, but it has proved elusive. Faith communities have partnered with schools in the past, but sporadically, Walls said. Last summer, in the lead-up to the new Strategic Plan, the district began a very intentional effort to engage faith-based institutions as a major first step to improved community engagement.
Rev. Albert Gallmon of Fellowship Baptist, a former School Board member, played a pivotal role, Walls said. He identified pastors who might participate, provided leadership and hosted meetings.
For every faith-based organization that wants to help a school, Starr facilitates the meeting between the principal and faith-based leader. They talk about their respective visions and missions. They talk about the school’s needs and the faith-based organization’s capacity to help. Eventually, they talk about expected outcomes and how to measure them at year’s end and create a contract.
School support for faith-based initiatives varies program to program. In some, faith-based volunteers come to the school to tutor, no different than any other volunteer. In other programs, students go to the faith-based organizations. Schools might provide other tangible support, such as a bus ride home or staff encouragement to attend.
At a minimum, the faith-based initiative gives the partnership the district’s seal of approval.
The district does not have any generic written rules for faith-based partnerships defining the church-state boundary. Starr explains ground rules to potential church partners during an initial meeting. One of the rules: No praying.
Some partnerships are not pursued after initial talks, Starr said. “One of the pastors that I met with, he said he had issues around the whole gay and lesbian thing,” she recalled. “He felt like you need to go in the schools and lay hands on the kids and cast that demon out. You can’t do that. That is not somebody I would bring into the faith-based initiative.”
Some old, some new
Sanctuary Covenant Church began offering the Hip Hop Academy after school program more than 4 years ago, said Mark Jensen, who works with Sanctuary’s Community Development Corporation. According to its website, the Academy teaches youth about Hip Hop’s positive origins and history; students get experience with being DJs, Emcees, break dancing and graffiti art.
Three years ago, Sanctuary started the Beautiful program for middle school girls, addressing issues of identity, sexuality, personal grooming and goal setting. The CDC (see sidebar) also provides tutors and mentors at City View and Anwatin schools.
“We want to let people know, we are here to love and serve, and it is not linked to their response to our religious beliefs,” Jensen said.
Temple Israel has had a partnership with Jefferson, a PK-8 school, for the past 4-5 years, said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman. It sends more than 40 volunteer to do one-on-one tutoring and has provided four free spots in its Early Childhood Center to younger siblings of Jefferson students. The late Agathe Glaser, a Holocaust survivor, used to tell her story to encourage students to overcome their own difficult experiences.
Temple Israel’s programs weren’t done as part of the faith-based initiative, Zimmerman said. “We did it on our own as neighbors. We believe being an urban congregation, it is part of our mission.”
Pastor Craig Pederson of Northeast Community Lutheran Church and Pastor Jim Halbur of Fountain of Life Gospel Church are both in the early stages of creating new partnerships.
Pederson said his church has a monthly community dinner and he and the Edison High principal have talked about having some of the school’s leadership team help serve the meal.
He also hopes to integrate high school students into worship, either singing or playing their instruments, he said. Another possibility is developing an after school program for younger neighborhood children, using high school students as mentors. “That is in the dream stage,” he said in a February interview.
Halbur is working with Bancroft Elementary. He plans to investigate the partnership by volunteering at the school himself.
Some families in his congregation have concerns that pubic schools are hostile towards Christianity and censor materials, he said. That makes people look for alternatives, such as private schools. Even after his first tour of Bancroft, he said he got phone calls from parishioners saying their children were excited to see him in school that day.
When children see members of their faith community in school, it increases their trust, Halbur said.
Halbur, Jensen and other pastors in the faith-based initiative spoke at a January School Board meeting. School Board Director Chris Stewart applauded their efforts.
“The scope of your work is huge,” Stewart said. “It reaches the child outside of our schools. It is the rocket science of education.”
A natural instinct
Building and maintaining those church-school relationships will have ongoing challenges.
Stiles, the program coordinator for the S.A.Y. Yes! program for Central and Lebanon churches, said while the program has stayed away from Bible study, “it is our natural instinct as a church.”
At one point in the program, they did try having students memorize a Bible verse, but dropped it. The students didn’t respond and it was outside the agreement with the school, she said.
“Next year, we want to stay away from [the district’s] advertising and sponsorship,” Stiles said. “That would allow us to do what we want.”