- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Carol Washburn thinks about the student she tutors at Fairfield Elementary School almost as kin.

“I’ve had the same little girl from second grade to fifth grade,” Washburn said. “She’s just like another little grandchild almost. She talks about her family; I tell her about my grandchildren, who are the same age she is.”

Washburn tutors through her church, St. Joseph United Methodist Church, and Rising Stars, a program created through the Associated Churches of Allen County.

Rising Stars focuses in three primary areas: supplies, family support and tutoring. Churches partner with schools to fill tangible and intangible needs.

Tangible needs can be school, teacher and student supplies or baby-sitting on back-to-school night so parents can attend the event without wrestling with younger children, staff and participants said.



The churches also offer parenting programs through a Rising Stars curriculum called Family Connections.

“Associated Churches is kind of unique,” said Sarah Deans Adams, Associated Churches’ director of educational ministries and head of the Rising Stars program. She has shared the Associated Churches model with people in Elkhart and Marion counties and knows of no other area that has such a program.

“There have always been churches who have supported the schools,” she said. But this approach is a “concentrated effort in quality ways that really meets the needs,” she said. “I don’t know of another group that does it the way we do it.”

The program has grown dramatically since it was created in 2010 when Associated Churches assessed the needs of Fort Wayne Community Schools and East Allen County Schools.

At that time, 20 Fort Wayne Community and four East Allen elementary schools were identified as having the greatest need based on the percentage of students enrolled in the free- and reduced-price lunch program and the lowest standardized test scores. By the end of the first year, 10 schools were paired with 10 churches, engaging about 250 volunteers.

Last year, 65 churches and organizations partnered with 41 schools and the clothing bank in Fort Wayne Community Schools: 31 Fort Wayne Community elementary schools; nine East Allen elementary schools; and one in Southwest Allen County Schools, Adams said. More than 5,000 volunteers participated, and more than $400,000 in donations and volunteer hours were given.

In September, after more school assessments, Adams said the goal is to add five more schools. Rising Stars works with school principals and case managers, with whom Adams visits every couple of months.

A few years ago, Associated Churches was more connected with the faith side, operating out of trailers to teach Christian Bible study classes during the school day.

Parents signed a release allowing the children to participate.

But that decades-old practice came to an end when Fort Wayne Community Schools was named in a lawsuit and decided to not fight back.

Adams said Associated Churches, with about 140 churches in its organization, supports the separation of church and state. Even when church members write encouraging notes to teachers, there are “very strict agreements with the church that we are staying within the boundaries.”

St. Joseph UMC on Reed Road, with an estimated 1,000 members, was one of the first to sign on, partnering with Fairfield Elementary School, Adams said.

“They are probably our biggest community advocates, said Lindsay Martin, Fairfield’s principal. “We rely a lot of on those community partners like Rising Stars. They provide tons of things for us, schools supplies and backpacks. I really don’t see how we could have a school year without them.

“They do so much more than serving pizzas,” Martin said, referring to the many pizzas church members serve during back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences, offering an incentive for parents to participate.

For instance, tutors have developed special relationships with students. Martin said students need as many positive adult role models as possible.

“There’s never enough,” he said. “The big thing they (St. Joe UMC) did for us this year, four of our students went to summer camp. It was an experience of a lifetime for these kids.”

The students attended Camp Lakewood, a Methodist summer camp north of Fort Wayne.

Sincere Pagan, a fifth-grader at Fairfield, was one of those children who attended Camp Lakewood along with his 8-year-old brother, Kedrin. His mother, Shakia, said her son came home singing church camp songs and carrying a child-friendly illustrated Bible.

“They read to me at night, which I thought was amazing,” Shakia Pagan said. Sincere has benefited from in-school tutoring with Rising Stars so much that he has turned to tutoring others, she added.

She is also aware that other parents appreciate the Rising Stars program because she has heard them talk about the pizza nights, something she and her husband, Clostin, have attended sporadically because of work hours.

“They love it, and a lot of his friends go to the back-to-school,” not just for the food but because they play games, she added. “I just don’t have time to do it.”

Harris Elementary School Principal Jana Ankenbruck said the school’s partnership with Central Church on Schwartz Road came at a crucial time when the staff needed help getting ready for a major renovation.

“They brought food for teachers and also had gifts and things for students,” Ankenbruck said. “They were so helpful to our staff, boxing up things and helping us get through. They’ve been a wonderful support to us,” she said.

Last Christmas, Central Church decided that each of the school’s 450 children would get a new book.

“They didn’t just say, ‘Here are these books,’ ” Ankenbruck said. “They were even wrapped. It was gorgeous.”

Christ’s Church at Georgetown made sure last year that each child at Haley Elementary School received a wrapped Christmas gift and have provided mittens, clothing, school supplies and teacher support, according to church volunteer Amanda Champion.

At Nebraska Elementary School, two downtown churches share the church-school partnership.

“Whatever we need and I ask for, they come up and find it for us,” said Jayson Balsley, Nebraska’s principal.

Trinity Episcopal Church has a special mission to equip Nebraska’s fifth-graders with a backpack filled with school supplies and last year helped some of the fifth-graders pay for the annual Chicago trip.

Plymouth Congregational Church provides school supplies that Title I federal funds will not pay for, such as paper towels, hand sanitizer and tissues. In the spring and fall, it takes up a collection for socks and sweat pants. Church volunteers provide a staff appreciation dinner and have helped with school registration.

“We ask them, what can we do to help you?” said Lucy Hess, a member of Plymouth Congregational and a volunteer on the school’s quality improvement team. “When they need live bodies, … we try to help if we can.”

Hess volunteered in a classroom using her background as a speech and language pathologist. Church members also tutor children through Study Connection, she said.

“They’re (students) rarely absent on the days when their tutor is happening,” Washburn said. “They see it as a privilege to have a tutor. They think they’re special because they have someone coming every week to see them.”

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Source: The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette, https://bit.ly/1Ejsw6R

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Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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