Despite Objections, Virginia School District and Church Volunteers Forge a Warm Relationship

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va.—In an apparently unprecedented move, a county school system in Virginia has invited ministers and Church volunteers into the schools, despite the objections of First Amendment groups.

Church volunteers in Prince William County provide a broad spectrum of services, including mentoring and tutoring for students, clothing for poor students, and after-school day care for parents who cannot afford private day care.

“The only commandment is ‘Thou Shall Not Proselytize,’” Edward Kelly, district superintendent of schools, told the REGISTER.

About two-thirds of the district's schools have found one or more Church partners, after Kelly announced to principals last spring that they should forge such alliances. There are 66 schools in the district, with more than 50,000 public school students in the county.

Prince William County, largely composed of bedroom communities, is about an hour's drive southwest of Washington. The public school dropout rate was 3.9% in 1996-97, according to the Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Composite test scores for county public school students have continually been above the 62nd percentile since 1987, with the 50th percentile being the national average.

Despite the good scores, the school system is like many others. It's composed primarily of middle-class, dual-income, and single-parent families that have long commutes, as well as a growing number of poor minority families that qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, according to Kelly.

“Every school needs assistance,” he said. When Kelly introduced the program last April, he reminded the principals of their pleas for more help—so they should participate in the program. None of the administrators opposes the program, Kelly said, and each is expected to pursue Churches to encourage them to send members into the schools.

Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches are involved, as well as nondenominational Churches and a Jewish congregation, according to Kelly. Muslims from the county's mosque have attended meetings, and Kelly has formally invited them to participate, but they haven't yet stepped forward, he said.

“Schools are an integral part of the community,” said Kelly. “They need support, and everyone needs to be involved.”

The program has raised concerns, however, among those concerned that some schools may give the impression that they favor certain Churches. Kelly should have invited business and civic groups, according to Kent Willis, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Virginia chapter, who raised his concerns in an interview with a local newspaper.

Kelly responded that he has invited business and civic groups to become more involved in schools, but he extended the special invitation to Church groups because they seemed more willing to spend time with students, rather than just donate money.

Businesses in many cases have only been invited to give money to meet particular needs, which has stifled fuller participation such as volunteering, he said.

A handful of volunteers from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., has been mentoring and tutoring students at three local schools since September, according to Father Bob Menard OFM, the associate pastor.

The parish's elementary school has about 350 students, but most of the 1,750 families that go to the Church send their children to public schools, according to the priest, so parishioners want to help at the elementary, middle, and high schools they've selected.

The Franciscan-run parish draws heavily from employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and U.S. Marine Corps, because of its proximity to Quantico, Va., where all three groups either train or station personnel.

Kelly, a parishioner at St. Francis, is a “fairly courageous man, committed to the effort in the community of integrating youth into the real world,” said Father Menard.

The risk in inviting Church volunteers into the public schools is that some may use the occasion to proselytize, while others may see the invitation as a violation of the historical separation in the United States of Church and state, which dictates that the state may not favor the establishment of a particular religion, the Franciscan said.

While one school has written a covenant that sets guidelines for volunteer participation, the school system is in the process of developing a set of rules to govern the activities, Kelly said.

With the school year at the half-way mark, it's still difficult to assess the success of the program in Prince William County, according to Kelly.

“You're not measuring student performance, drop out rates,” or other quantifiable factors, he said. He also stated that within two years, he may authorize a program survey.

Kelly said some students have told volunteers they appreciate the opportunity of speaking with an adult especially since time spent with parents at home is often limited. He has not received any complaints about volunteers. Volunteering in schools is “a quiet issue.” There's a lot of involvement, but very little fanfare, he said.

“I'm surprised by the amount of attention it's gotten,” said Kelly of the spotlight cast on the program both by Church-state separationists and religious observers.

Although other public schools around the country have formed partnerships with Churches, Kelly's district-wide mandate to the county schools is unprecedented, Deborah Bailey, a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University's Teachers College in Washington, told The Washington Post.

The program “naturally grew” out of the county's school-based management program, which dictates that schools write plans and develop support for them within their students' communities, according to Kelly.

The superintendent approached the Ministerial Alliance, an ecumenical organization with two groups in the county, for their prayers and involvement following a racial incident that occurred in a county school two years ago. In approaching them to help diffuse a difficult situation, “they felt appreciative of the confidence,” showed in them, he said.

Since then, Kelly has enlisted the ministers to help improve the county school system, appealing to their desire to serve the community.

Father Menard said Alliance members have since set up “listening posts,” in neighborhoods where families can speak with them about concerns regarding students who are either at risk of dropping out or have already dropped out of school and want to go back. The ministers bring back the information to school officials to help them make decisions.

In response to requests from parents in one high-crime neighborhood, Alliance members are pressuring the school board—whose members appointed Kelly as superintendent—to assign a school bus to the neighborhood, since some students fear the daily trek to school, according to Father Menard.

In his subsequent meetings with the members, some told Kelly that they did not feel welcome in the county schools, which led to his launching the program last spring.

The volunteer program is a challenge to Church groups, according to Father Menard. “It challenges our own willingness to respect each other's differences, while at the same time collaborating and working on our common values and commitment to serve.”

William Murray writes from Kensington, Md.