By The Rev. Mary W. Anderson
For several years now, the SC Synod has had public education as one of its mission directions. Congregations have been inspired to support students in need/living in poverty through food programs, tutoring, collecting school supplies, and mentoring programs. In the central Columbia school district, a small group of ecumenical leaders came together to recruit and train reading tutors in a new program called “Reading Matters.”
As Bishop Yoos’ representative to the LARCUM (Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic and United Methodist Bishops) Taskforce on Public Education, I have learned much about the intersection of poverty and education. I was horrified to learn that while students in poverty keep pace with their more affluent peers during the school year, they regularly fall behind them in the summer months. With this annual regression in learning, by the time all these students reach high school, the students in poverty are three years behind. How do you catch up from that? Often you just don’t. Why does this happen? Isn’t all the learning in school?
I’ve been helped to understand that poverty isn’t about not having enough money. It’s a poverty of many resources. It’s a poverty of brain development. Those who are more affluent often take for granted the many assets in their lives. Assets such as: conversation, hearing words, having books at home, going on trips to the museum, participating in sports, going to the library, the Congaree Swamp, the zoo, camp, having parents who are able to take you on vacations, stay home with you when you’re sick, be home from work in time to help with homework, parents who only have to work one job or no job. These are all assets often lacking in families with little money.
It occurred to me that while schools are closed in the summer, churches are still open! Through Incarnation, I knew of two important resources that could possibly help address this huge problem, at least on a small scale.
In hearing about this and about the annual loss of learning, I turned to an ecumenical committee in our Shandon neighborhood of Columbia called Helping Hands. Since the mid-1990s, representatives from The Shandon Cluster of Churches (Incarnation Lutheran, Bethel AME, Shandon United Methodist, St. John’s Episcopal, St. Joseph’s Catholic, and Shandon Presbyterian) have been partnering with the staff at Hand Middle School on Woodrow St. to support student families in emergencies. We also now run a weekend and holiday food backpack program. At Hand in 2016 we had 54 families benefiting from this program.
Last Autumn I presented to this committee my learnings and my concerns about these students falling behind in the summer and often ultimately failing at school. Our group got very excited about the idea of developing some kind of literacy camp in the summer.
The second resource I called upon was a member of Incarnation, Dr. Michelle Martin, the Augusta Baker Chair of Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina. Michelle not only is an expert in what we wanted to do but has developed her own not-for-profit organization called Read-a-Rama doing summer camps for at risk kids in reading for many years. With these partners, we organized a pilot camp, Camp Hand, to launch Summer 2016. The school staff issued personal invitations to all our food backpack students who would be rising 7th or 8th graders. We hoped for 20 students in this pilot summer. We have reached that goal and more. We started small with only one camp day in each of the summer months.
Each day of Camp Hand has a selected book that is the focus of the reading, activities, games, and even snacks. At the end of the day, each participant is given a copy of the book to take home and read. We are so grateful to have received a grant of $2,000 from the Growing in God’s Mission Fund of our Synod. For this summer, this has been our only source of income. We bought books, t-shirts, and even gave each student a basketball at the end of the first day since our book, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, is about a basketball-loving family and their relationships with each other. Congregations helped with snacks and transportation, using our church buses. Some businesses have gifted us with free lunches and books.
After this summer, having had good learning experiences for all of us, we hope to hold several days of Camp Hand over the Winter and Spring breaks. We look forward to planning a fuller program for Summer 2017. The school is planning to track the progress of our participants in their reading and their interest in reading. Our final goal is to help these students give back by partnering with another school in the state to inspire reading among their students.
If any would like to know more about these ecumenical partnerships in local schools, please contact Pastor Mary Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org.