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Philadelphia's church-school experiment

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2004


Paul Vallas has been spending Sunday mornings in the pulpit recently, but he's no preacher. As CEO of the 210,000- student School District of Philadelphia, he's been speaking at weekend services in houses of worship across Philadelphia, extolling the potential of the school-faith partnership, and asking congregants for help with everything from tutoring and mentoring to hallway patrols and discipline.

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Vallas's goal is to have each of the district's 276 schools adopted by at least one nearby church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, which he expects will bring moral heft, human capital, and familiarity with the streets to the job of educating the city's children.

Embraced by such faith communities, Vallas believes, students will better navigate the often-volatile home and neighborhood environments that threaten learning and imperil character development.

"I want to give the faith-based institutions some latitude to sponsor gospel choirs, to set up prayer clubs, to participate in what state laws call faith-based released time [for religious instruction]," says Vallas. Although wide-ranging, as long as the activities are voluntary, not school-sponsored, and take place outside school hours, they are legal, he contends.

Philadelphia is hardly the only school system to ask its surrounding community for more support for its public schools.

"So much of what influences academic outcomes is what happens outside the schools," says Tom Hutton, staff attorney of the National School Boards Association. "Schools can't possibly do it alone."

As a result, they are seeking more input than ever from outside resources, including faith communities. But perhaps no other public school system has worked so directly to include religious groups.

"I personally haven't come across anything that systematic," says Mr. Hutton. "The intersection of public education and religious faith is legally and politically fraught with peril, and what that sometimes leads to is schools being gun-shy of doing anything with the tincture of religion."

But Vallas is resolute.

"I think people hide behind the Constitution," in barring religion from school, he says. And for a district where fewer than half the students live with their biological parents, where those who do are often struggling, and where dozens of schoolchildren died as a result of violence last year, he thinks it may be a last chance.

He insists that the community at large is sympathetic, and will back him - even though civil libertarians may well object to an overtly religious presence in public schools.

"There's a lot they can do to help," agrees Harry Tischler, assistant general counsel for the district. "There's just the question of monitoring the services to make sure we don't go over the line."

Civil liberties groups will be doing some monitoring of their own. Houses of worship should not be viewed as offering some kind of last-chance solution to inner-city school problems, says Larry Frankel, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Mr. Frankel acknowledges that activities like Bible classes, when not sponsored by the school, may be legal on school grounds as long as they do not involve proselytizing, and says his organization does not intend to fight the district at this point. But it will be keeping a careful eye on the situation. "We'll see what actually plays out," he says.