All Our Children is a national network formed to support and inspire faith communities that have partnerships with public schools. The network was recognized by the 2015 General Convention in Resolution B005, which endorses church-school partnerships as a pathway to serve children, connect churches with their broader community and to reinvigorate congregations.
“This kind of partnership is bringing a new kind of life to local congregations,” said Lallie Lloyd, director of the national network. “People don’t go to church by accident anymore. People who are looking for a church are attracted to congregations that have meaningful relationships with communities, where they can be involved in service.”
There are churches throughout the Episcopal Church that have partnerships with schools in their neighborhood, and All Our Children strives to connect these churches so they can support, inspire and educate one another.
“Our purpose is to lift up the places where local congregations are already in mutual transformative relationships with their local schools,” Lloyd said. “Our experience is telling us that this is happening across the church, this is evolving out of very heartfelt understanding that our children are not getting the education they need to grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be.”
“When we start out most of us feel like we’re alone, and it’s really good to know that this is a real movement in the Episcopal Church,” said the Rev. Debbie Phillips, Rector of Grace Church in Salem, which has a partnership with a local elementary school. “I’m very proud of [General] Convention for supporting us so much in this endeavor. It’s great to be part of a denomination that understands mission.”
Resolution B005 was introduced at General Convention by Bishop Andrew Waldo of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina and co-sponsored by Bishop Alan M. Gates of the Diocese of Massachusetts and Bishop Prince Singh of the Diocese of Rochester. The resolution encourages churches with school partnerships to join the All Our Children network, and asks All Our Children to collaboratively plan a national symposium on the church’s role in addressing inequity in education. Regional conversations, the first of which is happening in New England on Feb. 19 and 20, are precursors to the national symposium.
The network grew out of the original All Our Children network in the Diocese of New York, where it was founded by Bishop Suffragan Catherine Roskam, who is now retired. Lloyd began to collaborate with the New York-based All Our Children while she was working at Trinity Church, Boston, where she was appointed to represent Trinity in a community alliance with the Dearborn School in Roxbury.
“[Churches] are often delighted to discover that they’re not alone, they’re not an outlier,” Lloyd said. “They are deeply encouraged to find that other people are doing this, and we also find that congregations are grateful for the opportunity to learn from one another, from the journeys others have taken.”
Stakeholders in both sides of the equation may at first have reservations about such partnerships. Faith communities might wonder: What about separation of church and state? Is this even allowed? Schools and parents may also have questions: Is this about prayer in school? Is this about recruiting people to the church?
“This is not about proselytizing, not about public dollars for private schools, not about prayer in schools, not about filling the pews of our churches,” Lloyd said. “It’s about being the hands and hearts of Christ in our communities by supporting our schools.”
All Our Children also makes best practices available for churches navigating questions of separation of church and state. Most important, Lloyd said, is to know that school partnerships are not just allowed, they are, she believes, an obvious way to care for the community.
“All Our Children was very helpful and inspiring, and encouraged me to continue,” said the Rev. Rebecca Blair, Rector of St. Andrew’s Church in New Bedford, which has had school partnerships for many years and recently became part of the network. “Before, I felt like I was doing something that was very strange, and it’s not strange, it’s the most natural thing in the world, and the network was really affirming of that.”
The All Our Children network is hosting a series of regional forums to promote sharing and inspiration among churches that already have school partnerships and those that would like to start a partnership. The New England regional forum will be held on Feb. 19 and 20 at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in Greenfield, N.H. The gathering is sponsored by Province I of the Episcopal Church, and will have programming tracks for growing and strengthening an existing partnership and for starting a new partnership.
The Rev. Rebecca Blair has seen the transformative effect of school and community partnerships firsthand. When she arrived at St. Andrew’s Church in New Bedford 12 years ago, the congregation had dwindled to 20 people on Sundays, the church building was falling further and further into disrepair and the congregation was beginning to discuss closing or merging.
“St. Andrew’s was a traditional family parish that had fewer and fewer children. Finally the Sunday school completely died, which was frankly embarrassing,” Blair said. “The basic inspiration for our work was that there were no children in the church, but there were lots of children around the church, right on church property even—some doing graffiti and throwing things on our roof.”
Blair began to sit outside the church on Friday afternoons, simply to be a presence in the neighborhood and to discourage some of the vandalism the church was experiencing. Members of the church began to join her. Eventually, Blair became concerned for the safety of the neighborhood children who were skateboarding into the street, and she invited them to use the church’s basement. Before long, a large group of kids was skateboarding and playing in the basement of St. Andrew’s every Friday afternoon.
This initial connection with the neighborhood eventually inspired the church to seek out ways to work in and with the neighborhood schools. St. Andrew’s Church's first partnership was with the Phillips Avenue School, a now-closed elementary school. Through conversations with the parents and the principal of the school, St. Andrew’s identified that it could best serve the community through programming for kindergartners and first graders.
St. Andrew’s after-school and summer programs for elementary school students have had many permutations over the years, and today include a summer program and after-school programs for children in Kindergarten through fifth grade. The program has grown in response to the neighborhood and the school, as well as the resources available.
“In some ways it’s small, but from inside St. Andrew’s it feels like this huge thing that keeps growing,” Blair said. “Each program has different funding sources, and it’s all year to year. We’re really grateful to the people who fund us and have continued to find ways to fund us.”
In addition to bringing children to the church for programs, Blair and some members of St. Andrew’s also volunteer in the Lincoln School and the Carlos Pacheco School. When it comes to separation of church and state, Blair said that she is very clear to articulate who she is and that St. Andrew’s is an Episcopal church. She said that the after-school and summer programs include some Bible stories and a prayer at snack time. When she is in the schools, all of the material is secular but she does wear a clerical collar.
“The reason I was present in these neighborhoods and these schools is because I’m an Episcopal priest with a church,” she said. “In any way to deny that would have been wrong, so I didn’t. If I was going to use church money and church property, we needed to acknowledge the leadership of Jesus Christ.”
For Blair, the All Our Children network has provided encouragement and inspiration, as well as helpful practical advice. This summer she joined Lloyd and many others in supporting Resolution B005 at General Convention.
“[Joining All Our Children] was encouraging, and it fed my soul, and it made me feel like I’m not crazy!” she said. “I felt like I was doing this all by myself. It was really something to be with a group of people that were just doing it, all over the country.”
Although it was never the stated intention of the program, working with schools in the community has helped St. Andrew’s grow and become more vibrant.
“When you join St. Andrew’s you have an opportunity to be ministered to, but you also have an opportunity to minister to others and even to create your own ministry,” Blair said.
The church has grown its weekly attendance from 20 to 40-50 on an average Sunday, Blair said, and children are once again part of the fabric of the church community.
“We’ve baptized children from the program, neighborhood people have joined our church and now we have this little baby ‘boomlet’ of children who had been in the St. Andrew’s youth group 15-20 years ago and are coming back with their own children,” Blair said. “And there’s a church for them to come back to, which is a miracle. It’s a whole story full of things I never thought would happen.”
Grace Church in Salem has a relatively new school partnership, and has also been an active voice in support of All Our Children. The parish has had a partnership with the Bowditch Elementary School since fall of 2014. The mission of the partnership is to support one cohort of fourth graders, about 80 students, through their eighth grade graduation.
The Rev. Debbie Phillips, Rector of Grace Church, was a teacher before attending seminary, and said that the church wanted to support the children through a particularly vulnerable time.
“The time in a child’s life when they’re most vulnerable to negative influences is that middle school age, seventh and eighth grade in particular,” she said. “We in the parish felt like God was calling us to be a presence to kids during that time, but we knew that we couldn’t start the relationship at that time. So we decided that we would enter into a five-year partnership commitment to a group of fourth graders and see them through eighth grade, so they’d get to know us, grow familiar with us, see us a resource and an adult in their lives that they could turn to as they got older.”
The Bowditch Elementary School is the closest elementary school to the church. Historically, it has been one of Salem’s “underperforming” schools. The student body is about 60 percent bilingual or Spanish-speaking, and 60 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. At the same time Grace Church was discerning a new outreach mission, the Salem school system was on the brink of going into receivership.
“We decided that we really had to respond as a neighbor to our neighborhood school as it was dealing with these issues. We looked at what we had in terms of resources and people-hours, and we felt that this was the best way we could make an impact,” Phillips said. “That’s very important to us, that we respond to the needs of our community in a real way. We’re a small parish, but rather than focus on what we didn’t have in resources, we focused on what we did have.”
The partnership with the Bowditch School began with a simple question: What do you need? Phillips and members of Grace Church began meeting regularly with teachers and school personnel, to find out how they can best support the work of the school.
“I was pleasantly surprised that in secular New England it was really easy to start working with the school,” Phillips said. “They welcomed us because of two things: one, we went in and asked what they needed for help, rather than telling them what they needed, and two, they knew how passionate we were about this. We were preparing for roadblocks and walls to go up because we’re a church but none of that was there.”
The school has undergone some major changes in faculty since the start of the program, and the partnership has evolved and expanded over time.
The students are now midway through fifth grade and the partnership includes several facets, both in and outside of the school. Grace Church does monthly service projects in the school with students, offers drop-in homework help Monday through Thursday at the community center near the school and hosts movie nights, dances and a talent show at the church. Phillips also spends an hour and a half a week working with students in a math class.
Service projects include decorating cookies for Meals on Wheels, and making Valentines to send to a local nursing home. “In March, we’ll start our big project, which is building mini free libraries,” Phillips said. “Our goal is to put one in every neighborhood in Salem over the next year or two.”
“It’s really important for the kids to know that they have something to offer. They’ve been told that they’re underprivileged and needy, and for them to see the joy that they can bring other people is so important.”
Members of Grace Church feel committed and excited about the partnership, Phillips said. Grace Church has an average Sunday attendance of 70, and Phillips said that close to 100 percent of members support the partnership with the Bowditch School in some fashion.
“Everybody in the parish feels they have some way to contribute, whether it’s to write letters of encouragement to the kids during MCAS week, or to be in the school for these projects, to buy supplies,” she said. “Everyone can engage at some level.”
Phillips has been actively involved with All Our Children, and is planning to attend the Province I regional gathering in February. She also traveled to General Convention with All Our Children to support Resolution B005.
“My involvement in [All Our Children] has really inspired me, given me some great ideas from what other people are doing, and it’s been really empowering and supportive to have that organization out there and to know that other people are doing this kind of work,” she said.
Membership in the All Our Children network is free and open to churches, individuals and groups that are exploring, forming or actively participating in community partnerships between schools and religious congregations. To learn more about the network and becoming a member, visit the All Our Children website.
The Province I All Our Children regional forum will be held on Feb. 19 and 20 at the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center. The full event description and registration information can be found here.