A proving ground for faith-based programs

Philadelphia's been called an urban lab for faith-based initiatives.

And Nyeesha Graham stands out as one successful test subject.

It's the enthusiasm with which she juts her hand into the air that first catches your attention. Then it's the determined way she sounds out the word "F-I-N-E-S-T."

In September, the public-school kindergartner didn't recognize any letters of the alphabet. Today, at a faith-based after-school program located in a private Catholic school, she brags about having read "300 books."

This week, as a centerpiece of President Bush's faith-based initiative is introduced in Congress, ideological rhetoric will fly on both sides of the debate about separation of church and state. But it's in Philadelphia, in the experiences of youngsters like Nyeesha, that lawmakers can turn to see the Bush administration's vision in practice, with all its successes and pitfalls.

Nyeesha got the extra help to learn how to read at a faith-based Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) Center. In just the last year, more than 20 such literacy programs were started in churches, synagogues, and parochial schools throughout the city.

The centers were designed along principles set out by John DiIulio, the combative and determined head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Before accepting his new job, he sat on YET's board of directors.

While YET's initial funding has come from a private foundation, a city official currently acts as senior adviser, and it's aiming for public funds in the future.

It also has the blessings of Mayor John Street, who has made fostering such faith-based programs a focal point of his administration. In addition to the YET Centers, since his election two years ago:

* Eighty percent of the city's public schools have been given a church, synagogue, or mosque as a "faith partner," which provides mentoring, classroom aides, and other volunteer assistance.

* Some 250 volunteers from 26 congregations have been trained to counsel inmates returning to the community.

* Forty-three churches, with the help of private foundation money, have provided 450 mentors to work with children whose parents have been incarcerated.

"We work with virtually any faith-based program," says Mayor Street. "What you get is access to a cadre of people who are motivated by something other than money. And that typically allows you to get a higher quality of service and a different kind of commitment that's based on a genuine interest in improving the lot of one's brothers and sisters."

But at the YET Centers, and in the other programs currently under way or in development by the city, the churches and their volunteers are required to offer more than their good intentions. Philadelphia requires accountability.

For instance, to run a YET Center, a church must commit to hiring a qualified part-time teacher. Then that teacher, along with any volunteers, is required to attend training sessions on subjects like "techniques for enhancing oral language/vocabulary." Then throughout the year, they're required to keep attendance records and monitor student progress.

The goal is to collect data to prove to future potential funders, like the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, that it works.

But many of the churches were not accustomed to such rigorous standards in their volunteer work. Marciene Mattleman, the director of YET, says they had to be convinced of the necessity of the monitoring, assessment, and training.

"They're also used to keeping the door open. Anybody who needs help gets help," she says. "But when you're developing a model, and doing a demonstration, you have to narrow that range."

That conflict was apparent at the Gesu School's Yet Center where Nyeesha was eagerly flipping through the book bin. When she started in September, she was too young for the program. But her brother and sisters are in it, and the teachers at Gesu saw her need. So she joined the class. Ms. Mattleman initially was concerned about that.

"Nyeesha's 5. She shouldn't be in the program, except that people want to help her," says Mattleman. "I don't think it gives a valid picture because it's not meant for a child her age."

A moment later in the hall, Philip Campbell, the coordinator of the Gesu YET Center, passionately insisted that as a "faith-based person," he wouldn't deny Nyeesha access. "She comes from a family of deficient readers. It made sense to us that she would be a deficient reader also," he says. "Now she's a kindergartner reading on a first-grade level."

Mattleman shot back, "That's one of the problems to have a 12-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl in one program. The narrower the range, the more effective the model."

Later, Mattleman called and reconsidered, saying it should be up to each center to make such decisions. "It shows we're flexible, too."

Like the program, the community is still adjusting to this new wave of faith-based initiatives. Larry Frankel, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says the organization is alert to the potential for hiring discrimination or efforts to proselytize. But so far, they've gotten no complaints.

And former Mayor Wilson Goode, who is a senior adviser to the Yet program and chair of Street's commission on faith-based initiatives, says the real difference is that more churches now feel comfortable participating in social services.

"Churches have also changed from being clubhouses for their membership," he says, "to lighthouses for their communities in which they're located."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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