“I don’t think there was a moment in the very beginning [when] a bunch of us gathered and decided to try to make a difference in education. This concern for schools popped up from many different places all at the same time, and we began to discover each other.”
Tracey Beal, Pastor of Community Development at Pure Heart Christian Fellowship, wrote these words in a blog post last September as she and a few friends launched SchoolConnectAZ.com, a website dedicated to “blowing wind into the sails of this movement to love schools.”
Jill Hicks, Community Engagement Specialist for Washington Elementary School District, believes the time is ripe for this new kind of collaboration. “With the current political climate and the changing nature of public education funding in Arizona, things are looking bad,” she says. “But this forces us to look around and engage in a way we haven’t before. At one time, collaboration was a one-time project or a church coming to a school. This is different.”
Beal goes even further, saying, “Schools are overwhelmed with the problems that they’re facing. They’re experiencing the brokenness of our culture. They want to know someone is concerned too. When they hear someone cares about them and understands their struggle, communities come together.”
Beal is viewed by multiple parties as an early pioneer in this kind of collaboration. She began working in the mid-2000s with students from her Young Life program at ASU, at both the West and Downtown campuses. The students began serving Herrera Elementary, located near 7th Street and Buckeye. Beal’s network of friends from Neighborhood Ministries and the provost’s office at ASU Downtown began to see this kind of collaboration impacting Herrera’s teachers, administration, and students.
Billy Thrall, Director of Church Relations for Grand Canyon University and Founder of CityServe Arizona, credits the Luis Palau CityFest and Season of Service as the catalysts that got the “loving schools” movement off the ground.
By 2009, the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association had successfully experimented with changing their model from a weekend evangelistic crusade in a given city to a long-term, deep-investment approach. Six-month “seasons of service” in Portland, Oregon and Little Rock, Arkansas had produced powerful results, even creating an unlikely friendship between Portland’s openly gay mayor, Sam Adams, and Palau’s son, Kevin. For six months, government, business, churches, schools and non-profits partnered together to meet specific needs within a city. The service emphasis was then capped off by a festival, where the city came together to celebrate the accomplishments. Palau’s team would produce the festival, including sermons from the well-known evangelist.
When schools hear someone cares about them and understands their struggle, communities come together.
Beal and Thrall, along with many others, invited Palau to bring this model to Arizona. “Pockets of good were happening. Season of Service gave us permission to gather and collaborate in a bigger way. We had a timeline and an external agency coming in to facilitate what we hadn’t done up to that point. With something on the calendar to shoot torward and well-produced media to communicate the vision, we made a lot of progress.”
At this point, Beal and Thrall meet Jill Hicks in the Washington District. Beal’s church, Pure Heart, began meeting with the district leadership and together they identified Cholla Elementary School as a place to start serving.
Beal and Pure Heart simply asked, “What do you need?” A survey of teachers identified three immediate needs: fund year-end academic awards, paint the gym, and fund an end-of-year dance. Pure Heart stepped up, meeting all three needs.
The partnership between Pure Heart and Cholla wasn’t the only place where Season of Service’s impact was continuing. “North Phoenix Baptist Church was partnering with Central High School,” Thrall says. “Camelback Bible Church was partnering with Camelback High School. There were 20 or 30 examples. We felt like it was time to bring everyone together to share what we were learning.”
A summit was held in the fall of 2012 at Living Streams Church, focused on three initiatives: foster care and adoption, hunger, and schools. Reflecting on that first summit, Beal remembers, “We discovered a growing momentum in the faith community’s concern for schools and we realized how important each sector of the community was to this endeavor.”
A second summit was held in December 2014 at Grand Canyon University. This summit symbolized a coming of age moment for the larger School Connect movement. Approximately 300 people attended, including superintendents and principals from 45 school districts. “We won the right to bring this diverse group together,” Beal says. “Everyone was there because of personal invitation.”
Dr. Michael Cowan, the superintendent of Mesa Public Schools – the largest unified school district in Arizona – and Dr. Susie Cook, the superintendent of the Washington Elementary School District – the largest elementary school district in the area – both took the stage to discuss what this collaboration has produced in their schools. Dan Steffen, Senior Pastor of Pure Heart Christian Fellowship, then spoke about the reasons churches should be engaged in these kinds of partnerships.
We discovered a growing momentum in the faith community’s concern for schools and we realized how important each sector of the community was to this endeavor.
But Thrall, Beal, and Hicks get most excited about what happened off-stage at the December event. Attendees sat at round tables, with school superintendents, college leaders, business presidents, and church leaders from the same areas talking about the idea of collaboration. The School Connect team, which included about 12 people, had spent hours putting these table groups together.
Thrall excitedly recounts what happened when a pastor described his failed efforts to get an appointment with the principal of a school near his church. Sitting across the table from that pastor was the superintendent of the school district in question. The superintendent pulled out his phone and immediately texted the principal. Within minutes, a meeting was scheduled with the pastor and the principal.
“We heard incredible stories like this all morning,” Thrall says. “But the best stories are just happening as more and more people are taking steps in light of what happened that day.”
Dick Stafford, Executive Pastor for Community and Global Engagement at North Phoenix Baptist Church, described the focus of the School Connect movement. “This is not about entity to entity,” he says. “This is about relationships.”
So, how can churches, businesses, and schools start working together? Hicks has some ideas. First, start with relationships. “This takes a long time because schools and churches don’t naturally stick,” she says.
Second, build trust. “Do what you say you’re going to do,” Hicks suggests. “A sign of trust is that the school person texts the church person. They have each other’s numbers and communicate [regularly].”
Third, focus on sustainability. “School personnel can change regularly. A new principal can come in, a superintendent can change,” says Hicks. “Organizations go through transition, even churches can change pastors. But when there are people who can say, ‘Yeah, Tracey Beal, she’s family, we trust her,’ that’s a win!”
We’re trying to build a two-way street where everyone wins.
Beal points out that the collaboration must generate a win for each partner. That’s the hardest part. “We have to ensure that working together continues to benefit each group,” she says. “Everyone must know what a good return on their investment would be. We’re trying to build a two-way street where everyone wins.”
Hicks sums up the vision behind School Connect. “The [solutions] to the problems of education are found in our community,” she says. “Often the lack of connections between the assets in our community is part of the problem. We’re trying to map and connect the assets within the communities that surround our local schools, so we can see children educated, clothed, fed, housed, and ultimately loved.”
All photos courtesy of North Phoenix Baptist Church