School & District Management

Phila. Schools Reach Out to Faith Groups

By John Gehring — November 09, 2004 3 min read
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The chief executive officer of the Philadelphia schools wants each of the city’s 265 public schools to have a strong partnership with a local faith-based organization.

Paul G. Vallas

To promote that vision, Paul G. Vallas is visiting churches on Sundays, welcoming after-school prayer and choir groups, and calling on synagogues and mosques to work more closely with schools

The closely watched initiative, called Philadelphia Public Schools: A Community of Faith Partnership, is being promoted by a task force of ministers, rabbis, priests, imams, and other religious and community leaders. Lawyers for the 190,000-student district also sit on the task force to ensure that no constitutional lines between government and religion are blurred.

Mr. Vallas, whose effort builds on attempts by former Superintendent David W. Hornbeck to strengthen connections between the Philadelphia schools and faith groups, says that religious groups can help with tutoring, student-safety issues, and a range of after-school programs. (“Closer Ties Sought Between Schools, Religious Groups,” Nov. 17, 1999.)

About 85 percent of the students in Philadelphia’s schools are poor enough to qualify for federal free- or reduced-price lunches. Many are being raised by grandparents or other family members, instead of their biological parents, Mr. Vallas pointed out in an interview last week.

“There are tremendous social and economic problems in our schools, and we need all the support we can get,” he said. “If it takes a village to raise a child, and you’re not accessing what is many times the strongest institution in that village, you are not accomplishing much.”

In a violent city, Mr. Vallas added, faith groups can help create safe spaces for students. Members of the religious community are already part of the crisis teams that visit schools, homes, and hospitals during emergencies. The district’s Safe Corridors program taps ministers, rabbis, parents, and other community members to help students walk to school and home using designated routes.

Blurring Lines?

The effort by a public school leader to aggressively seek the help of churches and other religious groups is being monitored by civil liberties groups.

“We want to take a closer look at exactly what is being done,” said Larry Frankel, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “The question is whether this is favoring religious groups over nonreligious groups, whether it’s blurring the line between church and state, or is this just a comprehensive effort to get a range of groups to help? Those are difficult questions.”

Mr. Vallas insists that the partnerships are carefully tailored, and that activities such as after-school prayer groups are legally protected if they are voluntary and not sponsored by schools.

“The Constitution allows freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” he said. “Federal law says any school with noncurricular clubs must allow students to attend as long as it is voluntary and we are not promoting a specific club. Schools are required by law to treat student-led, noncurriculum clubs equally.”

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., who is a leading expert on relationships between schools and religious groups, said a growing number of districts are turning to faith groups for support.

The Bush administration has made it a priority to involve faith-based groups in after-school programs and other federally financed initiatives. (“Faith Groups Express Belief in Federal Aid,” June 16, 2004.)

“When I talk to superintendents and school board members, this is one of the things they are already doing or looking into,” Mr. Haynes said. “The question is not whether they should do it, the question is how.”

Done properly, such partnerships can benefit schools, he said. But executed poorly, they can violate the First Amendment’s ban on a government establishment of religion and be a “nightmare” for administrators, he cautioned.

“The core piece of advice is that whatever partnerships are set up, make sure they are educational and serve the educational mission of the school,” Mr. Haynes said. “You need to be careful they don’t become opportunities to proselytize to kids.”

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