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In the Volunteer State Churches and Schools Work Together

Tennessee is stepping up in a big way.

The Volunteer State is making sure every student has a safe and supported environment to learn and grow, even virtually, especially virtually. Public-private partnerships are fast developing across the state, from grassroots organizing to district-led initiatives, including collaborations with faith-based leaders and state officials. Former Governor Haslam was the first to respond with the launch of Tennessee Tutoring Corps. He told us, “I saw this all the time when I was governor, people see a problem, and then it’s ‘let’s go see what we can do about it.’ I’ve always said we are a lot better at fixing potholes than we are at fixing hearts in government. You can scale fixing potholes, you can’t scale fixing hearts. That’s where I think private sector groups can come in and actually bring some humanity to whatever the problem is.” 

Haslam and his wife Crissy started Tennessee Tutoring Corps last spring to offset a formidable “COVID slide” of learning loss, offering summer learning opportunities in math and reading for kids on their way into kindergarten through 6th grade. Working with Boys & Girls Clubs across the state, they paired 600 college students, many of whom had lost their summer internships or study abroad due to the shutdown, with students who had fallen behind and would benefit from in person support. Haslam said, “We were floored by the response from college students who raised their hands and said ‘yes, I’d love to do this.’ Even more promising, afterward over 95% said they would do it again given the chance.” They’re currently processing data on students’ growth throughout the program, but qualitatively, “We were encouraged by it and think it could be the model in post-COVID days as well,” said Haslam. 

Now, as summer comes to a close, it’s no longer a question of when will we go back to school, but where and how? With 1,900 public schools in the state and nearly one million K-12 students, it’s a question that keeps a whole lot of parents, teachers, and students up at night. 

One district has come up with a particularly unique solution. Hamilton County Schools (HCS), serving 45,000 students in and around Chattanooga, is working with faith-based leaders to set up virtual learning centers (VLC) on the campuses of two dozen churches and other faith-based organizations. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Nakia Towns explained in a phone interview: “We were thinking about families who don’t have the luxury of having a parent or family member able to stay at home, they themselves might be essential workers and they don’t earn enough to be able to pay out of pocket for those kind of supports, and so we started looking around at our community assets and of course our faith-based organizations are a big community asset. There are about 1,800 religious organizations, churches and temples in Hamilton County.” In partnership with nonprofit organizations, including Chattanooga 2.0, United Way, Boys & Girls Club and YMCA, HCS is able to “facilitate matchmaking between families in their communities who want to take advantage of that support and faith-based organizations who want to provide that support.”

One of the first to step up was St. Luke United Methodist Church who had already developed their own virtual learning program in response to a church member’s suggestion last spring. Reverend Harris told us, “We started planning in June and then in July we firmed everything up so we were ready to roll in August.” They have two state certified full-time teachers, Emily Sanders, their family ministry coordinator is certified grades 4-8, a new hire for pre-K-grade 3. “For me it’s a Godsend, it’s totally the Holy Spirit moving. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, you can call it serendipity, you can call it whatever you want, but all of the pieces are falling into place.” If joy had a sound, you could hear it in Harris’ voice: “It’s been a really beautiful thing and right now, 20 kids are upstairs doing virtual learning.” 

The congregation’s average age is 80, and the children coming from five to six area schools are not their own. The church announced the program on a Facebook post they boosted, but Harris is quick to say: “We really are not here to convert people, we’re here to be a help and an aid. Isn’t that why the church exists anyway?” In fact, she’s dreaming up a contingency plan should the county stay the course with remote learning: “I have this grand vision —  wouldn’t it be really cool if every church would be willing to sign a ‘we’re not gonna convert you’ form, or a ‘we’re not gonna be homophobic’ form and then partner together to really provide a safe network of churches? We could coordinate pods, so my kids who are here on Monday and Tuesday could sign up for a Wednesday pod somewhere else, because of course the idea is to keep them all in the same pod.”

Grand visions aside, practical needs are transcending any divisions of church and state. As Dr. Towns told us earlier: “It seemed we had a great opportunity because all of those religious organizations typically have rather large buildings that might not be in use during the school week.” That would be the case for St. Luke’s, a three story mid-fifties educational building with a giant fellowship hall on the top floor. The students sit at least six feet apart at eight-foot tables with 25-foot ceilings offering plenty of air to breathe. Everyone wears a mask and gets a temperature check on their way inside. They have two pods — ten students on Monday and Tuesday and another ten on Thursday and Friday with a deep cleaning day in between, following district protocol. The students range kindergarten through eighth grade to meet the needs of multi-sibling families. There is currently a wait list of eight for the Thursday and Friday pod. 

Virtual learning requires electronic devices, high speed internet and discipline to log on and stay focused, something parents and children struggled with during the unexpected shift to remote learning last spring. With CARES Act funding, most every student now has access to a laptop or tablet, but that’s only the first step. Dr. Towns explains, “We’ve got the curriculum and we can do remote learning, but the challenge when children aren’t in front of us in our building is making sure that there’s engagement. Who is making sure that we’re not playing our video games or that we got up and got out of bed, and frankly, for some families, their home environment is just not comfortable or stable.” 

That’s where virtual learning centers like St. Luke come in. Reverend Harris says, “Today Emily told me there are a couple of folks who have to video their science experiments so we’re doing all those kinds of things with the kids, whether they have to draw, or act or do their science experiment, it’s that kind of hands on approach that helps parents not have to be responsible for that all the time. Because that’s what happens in crisis schooling, at least for me, when I was doing it I was like, ‘okay, how do I get this done and how do I work at the same time?’ I’m part of a clergy couple so we had literally a schedule of who could be on the internet when.” Harris says St. Luke is “blessed to have fiber optic” and they factored in upgrades from 100 to 500 meg based on how many kids plus how many staff members would be online for up to 6.5 hours simulteanously. Along with internet service, the program’s overhead costs include utilities and the new full-time teacher. The church is asking $20 a day per child, but if someone can’t pay, they’ll cover it. 

Ten minutes south of St. Luke, across the Tennessee River, First Baptist Church is setting up their own virtual learning center in collaboration with HCS and students from the School of Education at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. They anticipate program costs of $30,000 to $40,000 which they plan to cover with Tennessee CARES Act funding available through their nonprofit First Baptist Cares. Dr. William Terry Ladd, pastor of First Baptist told us, “We hope to provide a safe and supervised learning environment for underserved children in our community. We also plan for them to improve academics and socially while enrolled in our VLC and beyond.” First Baptist will host ten to twelve students selected by their assigned school, Tommie Brown Academy and their community partner, Chattanooga Room in the Inn. Dr. Ladd says the silver lining is that “community partners have worked together to help our children during this very difficult time in our city.” 

Dr. Towns agrees: “We’re saying every little bit counts. Don’t overcommit, any little bit they can do is helpful. If they can only support one learning pod of ten, there are families of ten students who would be grateful for that, because otherwise they would have no options.” The district doesn’t have funding to support VLC and there is talk of private sector fundraising. “We’ve gotten some interest from the business community because they’re the ones who were impacted by their workforce having to try to figure out solutions for their children, “ Dr. Towns says she’s heard people saying: “We’d love to contribute to more of these standup organizations just because we know we have to provide more capacity for parents during these unusual times.” 

What impact will remote learning have on education for the long-term? “For digital literacy and the digital age that we’re in, most of us in public education would admit that we haven’t moved as quickly as we should have to support kids who are largely digital natives and we’ve still been doing a lot of pencil and paper instead of fully taking advantage of technical platforms,” says Dr. Towns. “We’re now seeing the potential of those digital resources. That part is here to stay and it’s probably for the best.” She is quick to add that “education is a social construct and so much of learning is about the people to people interaction.”

Reverend Harris would agree, “One of the good things that came out of crisis schooling is an appreciation of what teachers do. I think teachers are very underappreciated in our culture. We’ve seen that now as we’ve gone back to school.” Harris grew up in a military family and believes that if teachers are on the front lines, they ought to receive hazard pay. 

By the middle of the second week of school, Joe Smith, a Hamilton County School board member, sent an email to a small group of leadership in the VLC initiative: “Let’s all keep fighting… there are kids and families that are confused and afraid and hurting …” Dr. Towns credits Smith, a longtime member of New Vision Worship Center, for his instrumental work in connecting the district with faith-based organizations. She says, “We’re hopeful that our example will help other communities pull together in this way. If there’s any good that comes out of this, it’s that there is more community engagement and support for our students.”

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