Without the Christ Lutheran Church volunteers who helped turn McClintock Middle School into a hub of robotics and engineering activity, the school might be nothing but a vacant lot today.
That’s one finding from a UNC Charlotte Urban Institute study of an eight-year partnership between the church and McClintock, which now boasts a technology magnet program and a new building with state-of-the-art labs.
McClintock Partners in Education, known as McPIE, has long stood out as the gold standard for community engagement with one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s high-poverty schools. Christ Lutheran has hosted family nights that bring hordes of parents and students after school hours and has helped the faculty develop the kind of extras that often elude schools without affluent families.
On a gut level, it seems obvious that volunteers are good for a school. But the study, which CMS and the church presented at a Tuesday news conference, represents a rare and detailed attempt to quantify the value of that work.
The report shows that students who took part in camps and activities sponsored by McPIE missed less school than counterparts at McClintock and in all CMS middle schools. Those who took part in two or three math- and science-related activities outperformed classmates on state math and science exams.
Amy Daniels, a Christ Lutheran staffer who helped create McPIE in 2007, said the study finally matched tangible results to the labor of love. “That’s huge,” she said.
“How do you actually know that relationships matter?” asked Assistant Superintendent LaTarzja Henry. “This absolutely confirms that they do.”
But it was the human side that grabbed attention at the news conference. Kiah Silver, a 16-year-old East Mecklenburg High student who took part in the program when she was at McClintock, came prepared with a speech. But she broke into tears when she thought about how hard middle school had been and what a difference the volunteers made.
“They go beyond helping the student. They help your family,” she said, gulping back tears. “It helps you believe that you can do something, that people really care about you.”
Kiah now volunteers at McPIE family nights. “I came back because I want to be a part of this movement,” she said.
McClintock had a bad reputation when I went in, but I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.
East Mecklenburg High student and McPIE volunteer Kiah Silver
The study also shows that even a volunteer program with hundreds of volunteers, a big vision and staying power isn’t a cure-all for the challenges of urban education. Despite efforts to boost achievement and attract middle-class families in the area to the school, poverty remains high (more than 80 percent) and academic performance low (McClintock earned a D on state ratings this year, up from an F the year before).
Attendance gains didn’t last when the students moved up to high school, with absenteeism soaring in ninth grade for former McPIE participants.
But McClintock, on Rama Road in southeast Charlotte, remains alive and drew more than 200 students this year to a magnet program specializing in science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It has more than 900 students this year, up from 630 a few years ago.
Without McPIE, that probably wouldn’t be the case, says the report from Diane Gavarkavich, a data and research specialist for the school’s Institute for Social Capital.
This school would have been shut down had it not been for the advocacy of McPIE.
McClintock Principal Paul Williams, quoted in the study
“After the 2010-2011 school year, three low-performing, high-poverty CMS middle schools were closed. Initially, McClintock Middle was also on this list,” the report says. “McPIE was instrumental in stopping McClintock from being shut down. Thanks to a white paper from a McPIE volunteer coupled with the energy McPIE was bringing to the school, McClintock stayed open and has since served over 2,000 students who would have been dispersed elsewhere.”
Superintendent Ann Clark said she hopes the report will inspire others to follow Christ Lutheran’s lead. “Thank you to Christ Lutheran for being a trailblazer,” Clark said.
After the news conference, though, Henry and Daniels acknowledged it’s far from easy to pull off a partnership of this scope. The church, with more than 3,000 members, has four staff people working with McPIE – and the report recommends adding to that.
Christ Lutheran puts about $350,000 a year into McPIE, paying for weekly family-night meals, summer camps and school clubs, Daniels said. Some of that comes from donations and the church budget, while some comes from grants. The report suggests finding new sources of money because some grants will end.
Henry said other churches have checked out McPIE and been intimidated. “It is expensive,” she said. “I heard that loud and clear from faith partners: This is wonderful, but I can’t afford it.”
But Henry said groups that are willing to work patiently and listen to a school community, rather than coming in with a predetermined plan, can do meaningful work on a smaller scale.
And Daniels noted that the church had no budget when the founders plunged in after then-Superintendent Peter Gorman rallied them to action at a 2007 faith summit.
“The biggest lesson we learned: Just do it,” Daniels said. “We weren’t perfect in the beginning. This is a long-term commitment.”
▪ To explore a partnership with CMS, email Assistant Superintendent LaTarzja Henry, email@example.com.
▪ For information about Christ Lutheran Church’s experience, contact Outreach Director Amy Daniels, firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-336-1595.