On Friday, November 6 Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Leadriane Roby held a hybrid meeting with pastors, both in person and online, to talk about how churches and GRPS can work together to help students who are falling through the gaps during this time of online-only education. The school system does not have a formal program to offer churches, but they said they are at the early stages of putting together a list of what churches are doing so they can invite their students and families in the near future.
We heard from several churches that already host academic-focused programs.
Bethany Hicks of Crossroads Bible Church said that they have continued their relationship with Stocking Elementary through Kid's Hope, but it has gone fully Zoom and penpal. They worked with Kid's Hope and with the parents in their program to secure permissions to Zoom with the children. They have one Zoom time that everyone participates in. The children are funneled into groups with their volunteer, and one leader is able to pop into any group at any time, which mirrors the supervisory function of a classroom teacher when a volunteer comes in to help students. This ensures a level of safety for students, something GRPS is very serious about maintaining. Theirs is an afternoon program--not done while the children are in synchronous learning in the morning (that is, when they have to be logged into their laptops, interacting with their classroom teacher).
Crossroads also sends volunteers to other organizations that are meeting with children in person, such as New City Kids. Hicks noted that the children in their congregation who are taking part in New City Kids' in-person learning pods are thriving.
Jim Bartels, who works with a number of churches on the NE side of town, said that New City Church has a learning pod of 8 regular students, elementary, middle, and high school-aged. They started with morning groups to help students get and stay online during synchronous learning, but are looking at afternoon meetings to help students get their assignments done. La Grave Christian Reformed Church also hosts a morning learning pod for one small group of students.
Boston Square Christian Reformed Church partners with two neighborhood organizations, Community Kids, which has been meeting with 100 children weekly for academic help and Bible study, and The Learning Cafe sponsored by Oakdale Neighbors Association, which has 30-40 children. Both organizations have been meeting outside since COVID, and are looking at how they might safely move indoors now that it is getting cold.
St. Marks Episcopal Church has a relationship with East Leonard School, and they have been working to keep their Student of the Month program alive, putting together goodie bags for children who are doing a good job with their distance learning. Teachers deliver the bags to the students' homes. Public school staff cannot share student information, but students are able to offer information about how they're doing, whether they're attending their classes, etc.
Rev. Troy Evans of The Edge Urban Ministry has had a program for children who are at least one year behind in reading. He was hoping to get connections from GRPS with retired teachers or paraprofessionals to work with students.
Rev. Deborah McCreary reported that Eastminster Presbyterian Church has a Family Leadership Initiative group of fifteen families that has gone fully virtual on Saturday afternoons, with students receiving help with school work as well as biblical lessons. Before the pandemic, she led a group of 25 reading mentors from three churches who went into Mulick Park Elementary School. Now she's hoping for GRPS help with transportation for kids from Mulick to come to a church for tutoring.
First Christian Reformed Church started an after-school (which now starts at 12:45pm, not 3:30pm) homework club. Shelly Ydenburg said about their experience:
Our goal was to provide a safe place for GRPS students who are learning remotely to get assistance with their homework and give their caregivers a much-needed break. We now have 10 kids coming consistently. There have been 20 or so kids who have come in the past on different days. We tried a sign-up but in reality, this did not work for us. In the beginning, we offered the service 5 days a week. This was not sustainable for our church. We reduced the number of days we offer the service to Tuesday - Thursday from 12:45-2:45. We have found that the students do not typically get assignments on Monday or Friday. When assignments are completed, we offer games and supplemental work for the students to participate in. We have found that our model works best with a 1:1 or 1:2 volunteer to student ratio. The kids love the one on one attention.
The one group that was mentioned over and over was New City Kids. They not only host learning pods for 60 students 5 mornings a week in the church they meet in, they have also continued their after-school programs of homework help and music classes with teen mentors. They hired academic specialists to oversee each pod. Christy Carlin Knetsch combed through the Michigan state's Safe Start recommendations and developed a 10-page manual that includes everything from cleaning recommendations to health and decision-making matrixes, to how to do drop-offs and how to manage the hallways.
Knetsch is willing to give any pastors or churches a tour of their facility and help them develop their capacity to work with public school students. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-340-3742. Here are her top ten recommendations, based on their practices:
She asked a few broad questions for consideration. "What would it look like to have GRPS student success coaches come to church buildings to help? Could your church write a grant, or could GRPS provide funds so you could hire an academic specialist to oversee 6-10 children?" Knetsch recommended that churches work with one public school so they can develop a relationship with that school that can expand beyond this time we're in now. She also noted that if you host a learning pod or homework club and you can't provide something fun for children to do, your program should end when school ends.
John Helmholdt, the GRPS Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs, noted that if churches don't know how to connect to families who want learning pods or other in-person help for their children, then GRPS can connect students to churches. They would also be able to "put out an all-call" for volunteers if churches have the capacity in their building, but not the volunteers. Once they have a solid list of church-sponsored programs, they are planning to send flyers in multiple languages via direct mail, email, social media, and chase those with robocalls and text messages. Helmholdt said, "We cannot formally refer students or coordinate services. We can share information about voluntary opportunities that students/families may access."
Superintendent Roby detailed the many needs of their students in this time:
A lot of students are falling through the cracks, either academically or through isolation. Some students need help around the instructional piece, they benefit from interpersonal interaction to help them learn. Older students need people who understand specialized content areas. Some students, especially our youngest ones, need different avenues for making connections in person. We want to have lists we can share: If you need instructional help, here are the places you can go. If you need interaction, these are the places you can go.
Roby said that churches do not need to have 5-day-a-week programs to be helpful. If a church had capacity for only one day a week, either during the morning synchronous learning, or for an after-school homework club, that would be great. The school system would add you to the list for that day and time.
There are student safety considerations with background checks required for all volunteers. The school system would not require formal Memorandum of Understanding agreements with churches, just a general understanding that churches would host students and volunteers and GRPS would provide resources when possible. Helmholdt clarified that, "Churches would be responsible for liability. We as a district could share templates for permission slips, waivers, etc., but we would defer to our friends at Boys and Girls Club, New City Kids, YMCA, and others for guidance on these matters. They have already establish a framework for this with everything from background checks for staff/volunteers, waivers, etc."
Bridget Cheney, Executive Director of Pre-K, Elementary & K-8 Instructional Support wanted to spread the word about the Parent University. It is a resource for parents, grandparents, and organizations to better understand how to help students. It is not only for GRPS families, but for anyone. They have online classes and tutorials that are full of technical tips and classes on how to help a child with math and reading. You can direct families to https://parents.grps.org/. Assistant Superintendent Larry Johnson also wanted to make sure GRPS families knew that if they have a broken, lost, or stolen laptop, then they should not be embarrassed or afraid to call their school principal. The schools have a robust repair and replace system and they will be able to set up an appointment to get the equipment up and running again.
Due to the complexity of programming during COVID times, and the levels of liability that churches will incur while working with vulnerable youth, we recommend that churches take great care in addressing the following considerations before committing to a program: COVID safety and protocols, liability, volunteer screening, parent communication and contact, school communication and contact, technology, transportation, recruitment.
In addition, we recommend that churches take on the recruitment of their own participants in order to avoid any confusion about the levels of support and coordination that GRPS is able to offer. Beginning with the youth in your own congregation, or developing a relationship with a nearby school is a good place to begin.
Churches with capacity and interest in helping serve GRPS are invited to contact John Helmholdt at HelmholdtJ@grps.org or 616-819-3740 to talk through what your local school may need and what your church has the capacity to provide. He will direct you to the right person to speak with, including a staff member who speaks Spanish.