Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

Many of the 1,254 students attending a multisite summer learning academy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2015 will go to sites run by churches and parachurch organizations — which comes as no surprise.

“We have always connected to our faith community because they historically have played a hand in educating vulnerable children,” says Chana Edmond-Verley, senior program officer at the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation of Grand Rapids, which has been very involved in the local Kent County Grade-Level Reading Campaign.

“Incredible good will and relationship building has been fostered. So when we raised up the summer issue in 2010, of course, the faith community responded enthusiastically.”

Designed to reduce struggling students’ summer learning loss, the academy is among several efforts led by the Believe 2 Become Initiative (B2B), which works in four vulnerable neighborhoods to close the achievement gap by 2025. Partners include the public schools, nonprofits, faith groups, civic leaders, Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation and the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation.

Preschool and early elementary children make up a third — and largest portion — of students in the academy, which runs through high school. The preschool program is six weeks; the elementary school program, four.

Many students attend a morning academic program at a school. In the afternoon, they attend an academy site at a church, church-affiliated group, community organization or school that offers academics-infused, project-based, hands-on activities. More than half the sites are faith-based.

A trusted institution, the faith community has long worked to educate children and support families in Kent County. And the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has long worked to acknowledge and encourage their efforts. It commissioned a 2007 study that documented the broad scope of contributions from more than 500 Kent County churches and parachurch organizations.

"The foundation intentionally reached out to the faith community, particularly of color, both black and Hispanic, to find out what they were doing to reach out to families because that story had not been told,” says Pastor Nathaniel Moody of Brown-Hutcherson Ministries.

The faith community has proved a particularly valuable partner in strengthening summer learning because they have many talented members — including certified teachers, other professionals, business leaders and retirees — eager to serve, available in the summer and willing to work, for low or no pay.

“Faith-based organizations like ours are called to support vulnerable children,” says Dwayne Moore of the United Methodist Community House. “Educating all children is a moral, economic and social justice issue.”

While some sites receive a $5,000 mini-grant, harnessing this talent pool “is really cost-effective. We couldn’t do it any other way,” says Edmond-Verley. “It has a high return on investment. You get high-quality effective instruction and lots of volunteers. To get academic gains, you need an effective teacher. And you can scale this.”

Children involved in some of the faith-based sites, in particular, have gotten 10–14 weeks of instructional gain during the summer, she notes, above the more typical 6–8 weeks for other sites.

Given churches’ family-strengthening history, it was “a natural” for them to lead the academy’s parent engagement, which varies from parenting education to home visiting. “Our folks connect with the parents, inspire them and give specific information about where their child is in terms of literacy, math and attendance,” says Jan Wilkins of Calvin Christian Reformed Church.

A data-sharing agreement with the school district provides individual student-level data that inform the summer program instruction, as do site visits by school staff. “B2B is a coordinated partnership that mutually reinforces our efforts at the district,” says Mel Atkins, the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ executive director of community and student affairs.

Church sites, in particular, “educate parents on what they need to do with their child and are clear about the importance of education,” says Pastor Andre Daley of Grand Rapids Dreams, a faith-based nonprofit. And parents “are comfortable with a caring church.” 

For more information contact Chana Edmond-Verley at 616-643-4888 or chanaev@dvfoundations.org.Photos: Believe 2 Become; Publication Date: Spring 2015; To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at brubiner@gradelevelreading.net.

Does your community collaborate with faith-based groups? If so, share your experience in the comments box! 

Want more? Check out...

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 How New York City is expanding summer learning in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx.

Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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