School prayer: Can a caring religious presence steer clear of prayer ban?

School prayer was banned by the Supreme Court 50 years ago, but many public schools and faith-based groups partner to help at-risk youth by offering a caring presence.

Every Wednesday morning at 10 , Andrea Bentz walks into Sanders Elementary School to spend an hour with third-grader Alex Grant, who sports a cool Mohawk and camouflage sweat-jacket, and who has a talent for drawing. 

Sitting at a low table, they chat and laugh, and she pulls out a small paper bag with his favorite snack, popcorn. Then Ms. Bentz teaches him a shortcut to help with addition, building in a break so Alex can add a scene to a cartoon epic. Throughout, she breathes not a word about faith even though faith informs her every move and every smile.

A member of the nearby Orange Hill Baptist Church, Bentz volunteers through Kids Hope USA, which trains churches to partner with public schools to mentor at-risk children. The program spells out and enforces the First Amendment restrictions that apply in a public school setting.

Similar arrangements are being made around the country, mostly though not exclusively with Christian groups. Some are independent outreach efforts, others are coordinated through such organizations as the Texas-based National Church Adopt-a-School Initiative or One Church One School out of Chicago.  Their shared aim is to create ways for communities of faith to be part of the life of public schools without violating the bans on school-sponsored prayer and religious activities.  

Some volunteers admit they hope their interaction with children will be so positive the kids will ask them about matters of faith. But the immediate goal, Bentz and others say, is to combat what they see as a dissolution of morals and a growing sense of hopelessness by filling a concrete need and providing a caring presence.  

Brett Scullen for example, is a board member of the evangelical missionary organization Youth for Christ (YFC), through which he has gotten to know schools in and around his native city, Auburn, Al. But while YFC volunteers help set up religious student groups, Mr. Scullen is currently piloting a mentoring program where "we don't discuss anything religious."  

About once a month, he meets with 16 students at Notasulga High School to discuss career opportunities in health care – Scullen is a vice president of Atlanta-based WellStar Health System. He also helps the kids focus their course selection to prepare them for future training, be that a certification program, on-the-job training, or college.   

"Several kids [in these underprivileged schools] have potential, but they'll get caught up in a system of no opportunities," he says. "It's great to talk about Jesus, but they also need concrete things."   

In addition to such ad-hoc partnerships, there is a growing interest nation-wide in more formal arrangements. Such is the case in the Philadelphia school district, where 213 of its 269 schools partner with faith-based organizations. These are “pretty evenly split between churches and mosques” plus some Buddhist temples and seven rabbis, says Kandice Lewis, manager of the school district's Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement & Faith-Based Partnerships.

The terms are clear, she adds:  “We do not allow proselytizing or solicitation [for their religious institution.]" Instead, the faith groups variously provide anything from supplies to after-school programs, mentors, and tutors.  

Many of the Philadelphia groups also participate on advisory councils. “They alert the teachers of, say, gang activity that might affect attendance,” Ms. Lewis explains, “and help create safe corridors” so children can get to school. “Our faith-based members,” she adds, “have a vested interest in the community.”

At Austell's Sanders Elementary, counselor Corinna Oliver says this faith-based commitment makes a difference. “We tried for years to recruit mentors through civic organizations, retirement homes," she says, "and had little luck. These [church volunteers] are committed, trained and they always show up.”

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