South Charlotte

Church partnership rescues local school

For St. Stephen United Methodist Church, it came down to .7 percent.

The idea to help a local public school had been brewing for years. This year, it found Greenway Park Elementary.

Leaders wanted to help a Title I school, meaning the school receives extra funding because 75 percent or more of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"This is a mission-minded church," said Senior Pastor Tom Latimer. Greenway Park Elementary is about two miles from the church on Sardis Road.

Greenway Park didn't qualify for Title 1 funding this year; it missed the 75 percent mark by .7 percent, so it lost thousands in funding.

Last year was the first time Greenway Park qualified for Title I. It received almost $70,000, which it used to pay for parent programs, buy instructional supplies and hire tutors.

The school also bought flash cards and workbooks students could take home.

St. Stephen has stepped in to fill the funding gap. Some members are Greenway Park alumni, and some have children who attend the school.

"It think it is just a fit, a need for everybody, the idea of helping someone in our own community," said Melissa Lamm, director of children and family ministries at St. Stephen.

Partnerships

Church-school partnerships are not unusual, said Phyllis Croutch, partnership coordinator for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Under former Superintendent Peter Gorman, the schools held a summit for churches to help them learn how to work with schools.

"With faith houses, schools will accept them on whatever level they are able to give," Croutch said. "Many start small with lunch buddies. It can grow to unbelievable levels."

One thriving partnership is at McClintock Middle School, which has a longtime relationship with Christ Lutheran Church. The church hosts science camps and summer programs, and once a week it holds a family night, providing meals, homework help and baby-sitting while parents take classes. "They've really become ingrained with the school," Croutch said.

Low-income schools sometimes have small PTAs, and because most parents work, few can volunteer during the school day. Church volunteers have stepped in to serve as everything from room moms to teacher assistants.

Get people in the door

Greenway Park Elementary is on Monroe Road about 1.5 miles south of East Mecklenburg High School. Principal Sophia K. Hazlehurst said many people don't know about the issues at the school.

While many suburban schools can muster dozens of parent volunteers, Hazlehurst said, "We're just trying to get some people in the door to help out." She said the school has a small but "heroic" PTA.

Hazlehurst said the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch has gradually increased in the past few years. Many don't have school supplies, books at home, Internet access or even a reliable telephone.

Some students don't speak English, and others are dealing with emotional or behavior issues.

"We had anticipated that we were going to be Title I this year, and we had a plan in place for people and some things we wanted to do for our students," Hazlehurst said. "We had to scrap that plan and come back with something else."

One bright spot has been that CMS's budget cuts were less than anticipated. Another has been St. Stephen.

"In recent memory, this (partnership) is something that we haven't had," Hazlehurst said. "We're really excited about it."

As many as 40 people - from retirees to teenagers - have attended organizational meetings at St. Stephen.

"From the moment we brought the idea up, it's just been really amazing how many people have come to us and said, 'I want to help,' " Lamm said.

They've already worked with the PTA to host a staff-appreciation breakfast, serving egg casserole, fruit and orange juice the day before students arrived.

"We just sat at the table with them as they were taking a break, asking, 'How are you doing? What are you excited about this year?' "

Latimer said. "They were just incredibly grateful and hungry for this kind of community support."

The church has given Hazlehurst a check to help buy student agendas and donated a cartload of backpacks and school supplies. This school year, they will volunteer as mentors and tutors, work in the media center and eat lunch with students.

"The staff is super excited about having some extra hands in the classroom," Lamm said.

St. Stephen leaders are clear this is not a short-term effort, just one that's starting small and will grow.

"We want to be present two years from now, five years from now," Latimer said.

"We really want to make this an enduring partnership."

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