Philadelphia's church-school experiment

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

So far, a third of Philadelphia's public schools are partnered. Their faith-based partners help in any number of ways - finding members to run for school council positions, offering Saturday sessions for suspended students, staffing parent safety patrols in hallways, and providing crisis intervention if needed. As the only nonschool institution in many neighborhoods, they're also passing along values essential to character development, educators say.

This initiative, along with the parent-truant officer program, is one of several community-focused innovations that Vallas - who is sometimes viewed as a maverick - brought with him when he came to Philadelphia two years ago from Chicago, where he headed the school system from 1995 to 2001. Next month, Philadelphia formalizes the faith initiative with the formation of a nine-member task force whose members represent the city's scope of religious traditions.

The question of who is legally entitled to be in the trenches is of little concern to the congregation at Bright Hope Baptist Church. "The need is apparent, and the response is just as apparent," says the Rev. Cean James, executive minister of the church, which is partner of Wanamaker Middle School across the street. Far more volunteers than were needed came forward to staff a safe-corridors program established in response to last year's spate of violence against schoolchildren. The program posts adults on all street corners before and after school, and designates a house on each block as a safe refuge.

While some Philadelphia churches are already loosely affiliated with neighborhood schools, the district's initiative goes far beyond the customary sharing of facilities space. It defines clear responsibilities and incorporates best practices standards, says The Rev. Mr. James. He said his own church's partnership, like many others in the district, steers clear of offering religious programs. Secular needs - safety, academic guidance, self-esteem, and college and career help - offer plenty of opportunity to help.

Budget figures are not yet available, but James, who chairs the initiative, says some partnerships will use a mix of public and private funding, while others, such as his own, prefer to rely mainly on church funds.

Given its broad scope, some or all of the Philadelphia plan is likely to be challenged in court, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University. "In that huge city of Philadelphia, all you need is one person to challenge - whether [that person has] a better plan or not."

The outcome of such a challenge, however, is anybody's guess, due to fluid laws, variations in their interpretation, and the personal biases of individual judges, says Professor Zirkel. Activities that may once have been seen to violate the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion may now be upheld under the same amendment's provision for the free practice of religion. Then there is the No Child Left Behind Act, which allows federal funds to be withheld from schools that fail to allow for students' religious expression.

Even if Philadelphia's program does not survive a court challenge, Vallas may hope it will achieve its results even as a drawn-out lawsuit wends its way through the courts. Or he may be counting on a Bush reelection this fall which could extend - or even increase - the availability of federal faith-based initiative funds, says Zirkel.

For now, the district will keep pushing, but carefully. "So far the public has been reasonable." Vallas reports. "They know the problems we face."

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