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Presbyterian congregation in Rochester seeks to improve education for poverty-stricken families

Providing ‘support that goes beyond teachers or families’

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Third Church tutoring coordinator Sue Maddock with one of the elementary school tutoring programs in Rochester. (Photo by Linc Spaulding)

Third Church tutoring coordinator Sue Maddock with one of the elementary school tutoring programs in Rochester. (Photo by Linc Spaulding)

LOUISVILLE – Members of Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, New York believe more needs to be done to improve education in their city and they’ve launched an initiative to do just that.

According to a report by the Rochester Area Community Foundation, Rochester is the fifth poorest city in the country with the highest concentration of extremely poor neighborhoods. The report also shows that more than 160,000 people live below the federal poverty line in the nine-county region and children are far more likely to be poor than adults. In addition, blacks and Hispanics have a much higher rate of poverty in Rochester than elsewhere in New York State.

Armed with these facts, the church and other faith leaders decided to do something about it, saying children deserve more.

“Children in Rochester schools need support that goes beyond teachers or families,” said John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church. “We aren’t presuming anything negative but whenever other adults get together to help, it’s always good.”

The church has taken a keen interest in helping schools and their leaders find ways to reach children who have a lot stacked against them. Members and friends of the church serve as tutors for elementary and high school aged students and also support the Corner Place Arts Academy, which works with children through visual and performing arts. Church members are also working with the Rochester City Schools on ways to help children.

“There are a lot of educators in the Presbyterian congregations of Rochester, so this is a natural fit for them,” said Lynette Sparks, associate pastor for outreach and evangelism.

Sparks says they and the Urban Presbyterian Together consortium sent 11 people to Raleigh, North Carolina to seek help on how to improve education for the children by breaking down the effects of high-poverty schools in their district. Raleigh has faced similar challenges in its poor communities and placed special emphasis on families living in poverty. “We deliberately included folks on the team who were not elected officials, who were not part of the system so we could be as objective as humanly possible,” she said.

Members of the group included parents, tutors, educators from the faith community, business leaders and leaders from non-profit agencies.

The group saw how Raleigh utilized the magnet school concept along with voluntary choice to help children in need by creating socioeconomically diverse schools. The results have been a near 75 percent graduation rate for low income and minority students, which is dramatically better than in Rochester. Wilkinson said there were some very transferrable lessons learned from Raleigh that could be duplicated in Rochester, and they formed a community coalition, Great Schools for All (GS4A) to press forward with their work.

“We are not likely to be one consolidated district here because of political interests, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have inter or cross district magnet schools across some of the 19 districts,” he said. “We can incorporate a lot of Raleigh’s strategies in terms of deconcentrating poverty.”

Wilkinson said they learned that a rate of 40 percent or fewer free and reduced lunch recipients is the “tipping point” for whether a school is considered successful or unsuccessful, even with the best teachers, principals and parents. Other factors for improving schools included a year-round option, high expectations, diverse staff and a focus on professional development.

Based on its findings in Raleigh, the group has concluded that:

  • Students need access to good public schools regardless of zip code
  • There is a need for diversity in the classroom
  • Solutions must involve the entire community, not left for city leaders to determine alone
  • Magnet schools of choice should be created that attract students from the city and suburbs in order to have diverse schools

“We’re on a 10 to 20-year journey to make a difference, but we’ve worked with educators and educational policy experts to review research,” said Sparks. “It’s a combination of data, moral and faith imperatives. It’s a conversation people want to have.”

The group believes that in order to move forward:

  • There needs to be broad community collaboration and strong leadership
  • Policy changes should be made at the local and state levels
  • Local pilot programs should be developed to move forward
  • There should be strong faith community support to build grass roots momentum.

The group’s findings have been shared with the school district, the mayor’s office, faith community and higher education leaders and other business groups.

“Because we’ve been grassroots and citizen based, not aligned with any leader, party or political agenda, people have been willing to open doors to us,” said Wilkinson. “The business community likes it because we are talking about providing a qualified work force. Educators like it because it sets them up for success and parents who are invested in their children’s future like it.”

Over the past two years, Great Schools for All has held three community summits and three town hall meetings where volunteers and work groups reported on their research and gathered feedback. They have developed plans for summer learning programs, conducted focus groups, implemented a community parent survey, and developed a proposal for a network of diverse schools. Meantime, the group is looking at other communities’ efforts to make change and continuing to tell their story.

“We spend a lot of time dispelling myths. Some myths are that children can’t learn; teachers can’t teach in urban districts or that families are to blame. We think those are flat out wrong and many times, carry racist undertones,” said Wilkinson. “What we know from working with urban schools is that we do have good urban teachers and we do have parents who are really invested in their kids.”

“We all bear some responsibility for where we are and what happens going forward,” said Sparks. “It’s just a lot more empowering to say I can be part of something than sit back and bemoan what was or what never was.”

Both Sparks and Wilkinson say that the only way to make a difference in the future of children in your community is to get involved.

“Whether looking at hunger, gun violence, public education or housing, we have a choice – shrug shoulders and hunker down or use our gifts, energy and the resources God has given us and listen to where the Spirit is leading,” said Wilkinson.

he Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has made education and poverty alleviation a priority. Working with partners in the U.S. and worldwide, the goal is to provide access to quality education for one million children by strengthening communities’ capacity to provide quality education, improve teacher training and resources and create a safe environment for children to learn.


For more information on the national component of the Educate a Child initiative, click here. For information on the international component, click here.

Donate to the national campaign to help strengthen early childhood education and decrease dropout rates.

Donate to the international campaign to address the shortage of well-trained teachers and to provide infrastructure, learning resources, access, safety and security at schools.

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