ST. LOUIS — When Cheryl Daughrity's two daughters were young, they did just fine in their St. Louis public elementary schools, getting mostly A's and B's. But as they reached middle school, the troubles began.
Class sizes swelled, students fought in the hallways, and basic materials such as pencils and paper were in short supply. The girls' grades, attitude, and self-esteem suffered.
At Mrs. Daughrity's inner-city church, conversations gravitated toward the poor condition of St. Louis public schools, which are technically unaccredited and only a legality or two away from state takeover. The problem was glaringly apparent in a Sunday school filled with children only marginally literate.
Bishop Lawrence Wooten, her pastor at the Church of God in Christ, was equally fed up. The former educator teamed up with other local ministers to found the St. Louis Academies, two nonreligious K-10 schools that opened this fall on a shoestring budget.
During their first semester at the new school, Daughrity's daughters thrived. One, who had dropped back a grade, was promoted within 90 days of enrolling, and both girls are earning A's and B's.
"I gave my daughters a choice either to stay or go back to public school," says Daughrity. "They said, 'Mom, [the academies] don't have a lot of different things like dances, but what we do have here are teachers who care about us.' The academies are a labor of love, and it shows."
At wits' end over the slow pace of school reform and the widening gap in educational achievement between cities and suburbs, African-American parents in major urban areas are turning to what has long been the institutional cornerstone of inner-city communities - the churches - as their last, best hope for change.
And the churches are responding. Sponsoring schools is seen as a natural extension of their long tradition of community outreach.
Here in St. Louis, the group led by Bishop Wooten spent two years studying the possibility of opening as many as six schools in the spirit of community service, though not in the name of religion. "The situation had become desperate," he says. "It is not our intent to be critical of the public schools, but they simply weren't meeting the needs of our kids. We felt we could and should take a leadership role in addressing the problem."
The St. Louis Academies, housed in two former parochial school buildings, are considered private at the moment, but are tuition-free, thanks to church donations, a loan from a Phoenix-based educational institution, and some federal funding for lunch and after-school programs.
The curriculum at the academies is best described as meat and potatoes. Fads are out, the basics in.
"Our philosophy is very simple," says Tim Daniels, executive director of the academies. "If our kids can't read or understand math at their grade level, that's what they do, even if it's for six or seven hours a day, so they can get up to grade level. Anything else you try - special programs, computers labs - aren't going to work if the kids can't read to begin with."
When enrollment began last summer, the first sign-ups came from Wooten's church and other congregations. But soon, parents from across the city caught wind of the opportunity. In addition to the 450 pupils currently enrolled at the two schools, there is a considerable waiting list.
Mr. Daniels, a Marine lieutenant colonel with an MBA, says conditions in St. Louis public schools are mirrored in urban school districts around the country, and so are the solutions that are taking shape here. Prior to going back on active military duty in late October, Daniels was receiving more than a dozen calls per day from clergymen, parents, educators, and others who had heard about the academies and wanted to duplicate the effort in their communities.
Similar church-inspired schools already are taking shape in states from Georgia to California. In some other locales, church leaders who share the frustration of St. Louis's clergy are opting to fight the reform battle within the public schools arena rather than creating separate schools.
The issue presents a paradox for many in the black community. African-Americans in inner cities, unable to afford private schools, have long been strong supporters of public schools, believing them to represent the only real hope for their children.
In Memphis, a politically powerful 200-member bloc of clergy known as Ministers Aligned and Committed to Excellence (MACE) is speeding the pace of change in a district where 64 of the 215 schools are officially "failing." Each ministerial member has adopted a school with which he or she shares church resources.
"Black churches have been the cutting edge of all change in this country for African-Americans," says L. LaSimba Gray Jr., pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church in Memphis and president of MACE. "We realize that, and we are now more and more willing to exercise this in the educational arena. Heretofore, we have elected officials and trusted them to do the right thing. That's not how we're operating anymore."
Indeed, Lee Brown, a member of MACE and a prominent Baptist minister, is the first clergyman ever elected to the Memphis school board. The issues MACE is addressing range from busing and school buildings to uniform curriculum standards and increased parental involvement in schools.
As churches step up their involvement in education, concerns do surface about the separation of church and state.
But Mr. Gray insists there is no attempt to cross that boundary and impose a religious curriculum in the schools.
"There's no dichotomy between secular and sacred. Civic involvement is an integral part of our ministry," he says.
In St. Louis, the church-state issue may arise if the St. Louis Academies succeed in becoming charter schools, which fall within the public system.
Both Wooten and Daniels, however, say there's no entanglement of religion and what the academies are offering.
"This is about education," Daniels says. "Just because you are a member of a church doesn't mean you're not a concerned member of the community. Our churches are also part of the community and also concerned. But there is absolutely no attempt to teach church doctrine.... There is no real connection to the church other than sponsorship and the fact that we can see in Sunday school that these kids can't read."
For Daughrity, the debate is a distant concern.
"I don't really know about the issue of church and state," she says. "All I know is that my daughters have finally found a school where they are happy and productive."