Leap of faith for city schools Affiliation: Despite legal questions, Baltimore allows churches to get involved in education management.

November 22, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When Callaway Elementary School opened its doors this fall, the students had many new teachers, a new principal and a new curriculum -- all chosen by Vashti McKenzie, the minister of a well-known African-American church.

Callaway is not a new parochial school in Baltimore but a neighborhood public school, perhaps the only one in the nation managed by the nonprofit arm of a church. In a city in the midst of school reform, few criticized the school board's decision to let a church try to improve teaching at a school where only 6 percent of third-graders passed the state's reading test last year.

The web of connections between Baltimore's African-American churches and its schools has been an intricate one woven by parents, teachers and ministers who believe the church should be a force for social change. Churches organize after-school tutoring programs, raise money for schools, lobby in Annapolis to increase state funding and hold regular Sunday services in public schools.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published Nov. 22 in the Maryland section of The Sun incorrectly reported that the Rev. Vashti McKenzie, the TC chairwoman of the nonprofit Payne Memorial Outreach Inc., chose the curriculum, teachers and principal of Callaway Elementary School in Baltimore. In fact, the teachers were selected by an educational committee of Payne Memorial Outreach. The committee, of which McKenzie is a member, recommended principal candidates to the Baltimore schools chief executive for selection. The school board approved a contract with Payne Memorial which included the curriculum to be taught at Callaway, a neighborhood public school. The Sun regrets the error.

But some of these alliances could stretch constitutional limits, legal experts say, and could open Baltimore's school board to legal challenges. Educational associations and constitutional law experts say they have not heard of a church-affiliated, nonprofit organization running a public school anywhere else in the nation.

They say it is unclear how the Supreme Court would rule on the issue.

"Ultimately, these decisions rest with the school board," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "But I think the school board, in moving down this path, will ignite an important debate over the separation of church and state."

Church leaders say they plan to get more involved in education, not less. They find Robert Booker, the new school chief executive officer, far more welcoming than his two predecessors. "What we sense with this new chief executive officer is an openness for a real partnership," said the Rev. Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church.

Miles and Booker began a campaign, "Doing Our Part," last summer to get parents more involved in education, with churches holding back-to-school rallies and ministers preaching from the pulpit.

Churches, through Baltimoreans United In Leadership

Development, have sponsored Child First, a group that tries to get parents to work in the schools and to lobby on the most important issues, such as crowding. BUILD churches also want to create partnerships between churches and all 120 elementary schools by the end of the year.

Those partnerships have produced results -- a total of $11,000 for four city schools this school year, an amount the fund-raisers say is only a start -- but are the relationships too close? Legal scholars said churches cannot proselytize in schools or create an atmosphere that is uncomfortable for children who have different beliefs than teachers and principals.

Symbolic union

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and John Eager Howard Elementary School celebrated a symbolic marriage of the principal and pastor on May 31. The Rev. Karen Brown, the

associate pastor, performed the ceremony in which the principal and pastor danced down the aisles in African garb and promised to "love, honor and respect" their institutions. The service was a way for the church and school "to make a commitment to uplift the neighborhood and empower the parents," said Sandra Ashe, the school's principal.

To assuage concerns raised by the community, Ashe said she called it a unity service and made sure that Jews and Muslims felt comfortable and took part.

This school year, Madison Avenue Presbyterian has taken on a significant role in the life of the school. It operates after-school and Saturday academic programs for about 150 of the school's 390 pupils.

The union between the two has helped the church recruit members. When Ashe goes out on behalf of the school, she said, she doesn't do any "hard-core proselytizing" but tells parents that she works work on behalf of the school as a disciple of God.

About 10 families from the school have become members of the church in two years, Brown said, and many more aren't formal members but refer to Madison as their church.

"We are unapologetic about being Christian," she said.

Bible studies

The Rev. Douglas Wilson, minister of Mount Pleasant Church Ministries, is also unapologetic about wanting prayer back in school and Bible studies as part of after-school activities in high school.

Wilson, executive secretary of the 10-year-old Clergy United for Renewal in East Baltimore (CURE), has been involved in starting Bible study clubs in several city high schools, an activity that has been sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

"We are spirit, mind and body," Wilson said. "We were educating the mind but excluding the spirit."

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