As night fell on Reid Park Academy, the westside school was anything but quiet.
Some families were finishing their barbecue chicken, while others clustered around the stage to watch their children dance. Music pulsed. Teachers and administrators mingled with parents and students.
Dozens of volunteers, most from churches in the West Boulevard corridor, acted as hosts.
Reid Park, a public school serving students from prekindergarten to eighth grade, has faced upheaval and challenge. So have the neighborhoods it serves and many of the families who send their children.
Family night, which launched in September, symbolizes a larger quest to rebuild a fragile community, with a school at its heart. No one expects transformation to be easy. But organizers believe the best hope for academic success and community strength comes from educators, families, churches and agencies uniting to help children.
“We know with time we are going to make a difference,” said the Rev. Anthony Crowder, pastor of Storehouse Ministry. He wants to see Reid Park have a positive identity like other Charlotte areas, from NoDa to South End, and he believes the school can be the catalyst.
The model is McClintock Middle School, where Christ Lutheran Church has been drawing hundreds to family nights for six years now. Some see it as a beacon for volunteers who are seeking more sophisticated ways to engage with schools and families.
It also reflects an awareness that schools need families’ help.
“We know that children go home to a family every day,” said Reid Park Principal Mary Sturge. “It doesn’t make sense to just serve the child.”
It’s not easy
Big family events at school are second nature in more affluent areas, where parents tend to feel comfortable with school involvement, have time and money to organize activities and own cars to get to after-hours gatherings.
None of that can be taken for granted in impoverished neighborhoods. Christ Lutheran, a large church in southeast Charlotte, spends about $100,000 a year providing meals and transportation, says outreach director Amy Daniels.
The commitment of money and volunteers required may be why the widely admired model hasn’t spread faster. Hands On Charlotte, a nonprofit volunteer recruitment agency, is committing about $60,000 to launch a twice-monthly family night at Albemarle Road Elementary this year.
Hands On Charlotte chose the McClintock model because “we’d never really found anything that got to a critical mass of impact,” despite years of sending volunteers into schools to beautify grounds and tutor children, says Associate Director Bob Young. The group selected the east Charlotte school because it has a strong principal who has already developed a network of volunteers and partners. No matter how much money and energy any outside group can bring, Young says, family connections can’t be built quickly.
“You really have to take the time to build credibility with each other,” he said. “You just can’t get that out of a box.”
Faith in Reid Park
The Reid Park Project in west Charlotte represents years of planning among Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, the nonprofit Communities in Schools and the private Melange Health Solutions, a mental health group. The goal is to help students and their families achieve the health and stability needed for academic success.
Family night is just one branch of the project. As project leaders talked to families about what they wanted, they heard a yearning for connections to their school and churches.
Neighborhood churches were eager to help. They created ARK (for Acts of Random Kindness) at the Park, a coalition spearheaded by the City Dive ministry of New Birth church in Huntersville. They set about bringing in some of the opportunities families asked for, from a chance for their children to join Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to health and fitness activities for the whole family.
Twice a month, volunteers teach art and dance classes, lead adult discussions, offer job skills and provide care for the youngest siblings. Neighborhood retirees bring in golf gear to introduce the sport to young people. The first three sessions have pulled about 300 to 500 adults and children, organizers say.
It’s still something of a shoestring operation. Reid Park Academy just got $25,000 from the Fred and Nancy Brumley Foundation to pay for meals. But that will only cover the first semester. Individual donors are paying for banners, T shirts and club expenses. Sturge had hoped to use Title I money for family involvement at high poverty schools to provide transportation, but that didn’t meet federal guidelines. So families rely on city buses, carpooling and faculty who can give rides.
But on Thursday night, what families saw was a host of welcoming volunteers and a good meal for everyone. As they finished eating, the Rev. Hamani Fisher of City Dive grabbed a mike, cued a DJ and called children to the stage for “freestyling.” He called them up by age group to strut their stuff, as parents beamed and danced along.
Almost two-thirds of Reid Park’s students read below grade level, and Sturge plans to work more reading into the schedule for children and adults. But for now, she wants them to feel like their children’s school can be a second home.