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January 26, 2018 - Volume 38 Issue 3

By Jim Wallace

A bill proposed by Gov. Jim Justice to not only provide free tuition for many West Virginians attending community and technical colleges but also establish stronger career-technical education pathways for high school students cleared two committees this week and is on schedule to pass in the Senate as early as Tuesday. Another education bill received the full Senate’s approval this week, while yet another was assigned to a subcommittee for further study.

To provide for free tuition, Senate Bill 284 would establish the West Virginia Invests Grants Program. The other part of the bill would create Advanced Career Education (ACE) programs, in which public secondary schools would enter into partnerships with community and technical colleges to “create clear and efficient pathways that begin in high school and lead [students] to obtaining advanced certifications and associate degrees.”

The ACE programs would be available to public, nonpublic and home-school students. The bill originally provided that students would have to go through ACE programs in high school to be eligible for the free tuition in community and technical colleges or wait until age 20 to go to college, but Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, pushed to change that when the bill was in the Senate Education Committee.

“Why would you make kids wait till 20 years old to take advantage of it?” he asked.

Committee counsel Hank Hager replied, “I think that that was meant to address a concern that, instead of going to the four-year institutions, a lot of students would try to go to the community and technical colleges initially where they wouldn’t have to pay tuition and then transfer into the four-year institutions after that.”

“If you don’t go to college between 18 and 19, you’re done. I bet you the percentages are infinitesimal of the kids that are going to go to college if they wait until 20 years old.” – Sen. Mike Romano

“Who’s our target here?” Romano asked. “If you don’t go to college between 18 and 19, you’re done. I bet you the percentages are infinitesimal of the kids that are going to go to college if they wait until 20 years old.”

James Bailey of the governor’s office said the age limit was meant to contain costs. He said it also was to avoid getting students who go to two-year institutions just to transfer to four-year institutions. He said there was an exception to the 20-year rule for those participating in ACE.

“This grant program being proposed is primarily designed to benefit people who have fallen out of the system who we want to get back in the workforce,” Bailey said. “We want kids to get into these programs as early as possible and get on the track of attaining an associate degree.”

Students also have the option of using the Promise scholarship for free college tuition, he added.

Johnny Moore, president of Pierpont Community and Technical College, sided with Romano. He said community and technical colleges have open access, which means they get people of all ages. “So it bothers me when we sit here and we talk about putting a restriction on the age limit for students, providing them with an opportunity,” he said.

Moore went on to say that West Virginia’s community and technical colleges do a great job with training the workforce but have not addressed the other side of what such colleges should do. “Our community colleges should be feeders to the four-year institutions,” he said. “We’re putting in bills now that’s going to restrict that. That’s not the mission of community college.”

Community colleges are the port into higher education for more than 50 percent of college-going Americans – about 12 million students – Moore said, but it’s only 23 percent in West Virginia. “Until we flip that model, we will not be competitive with other states as it relates to training the workforce,” he said.

“We’re trying to get students interested in the ninth grade, 10th grade, and we’re trying to get them in pipeline programs that actually create the jobs that we want them to have that they can flow into the community and technical colleges.” – Sen. Bob Plymale

Romano said the percentages shocked him. “We’re not getting the benefit of the two-year colleges because the percentages are so skewed,” he said.

“As a state, we have to begin to reimagine what college is,” Moore said. “Let’s go all the way to make this a good bill.”

Romano proposed amending the bill to lower the cutoff age to 18 or anyone who has earned high school degrees, which would accommodate students who graduate from high school before age 18.

But Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, objected. “We’re trying to get students interested in the ninth grade, 10th grade, and we’re trying to get them in pipeline programs that actually create the jobs that we want them to have that they can flow into the community and technical colleges,” he said. “Instead of changing the age now, let’s change the age later if we see that there are problems with it after two years. I think we’re trying to make a perfect deal that fits every situation that doesn’t necessarily hit where we’re trying to go.”

A student who graduates from high school now would not have gone through the pipeline of secondary school programs the bill would set up, Plymale said, so Romano’s amendment goes against the logic of the bill. But Romano argued the change would make it a better bill. Most of the committee agreed and approved the amendment. A revised fiscal note from the Community and Technical College System estimated that Romano’s amendment would raise the cost of the bill from $7 million to $8 million.

Berkeley County program was inspiration for bill.

Bailey told the committee that the bill’s provisions were partly based on the success that the Berkeley County school system and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College have had with a program they call Jump Start. Blue Ridge President Pete Checkovich said it started with an Integrated Production Technology program last year to prepare students for some of the 700 jobs with average salaries of $70,000 that the new Proctor & Gamble distribution center is expected to have by the fall of 2019. Seventeen students started in the program last year, he said.

“They’ll have a leg up on anybody that doesn’t have that training,” Checkovich said.

The expanded program called Jump Start this year includes mechatronics, health fields, and criminal justice, he said, and three more, including agricultural technology, will be added next year. The public school system buses the students to the facility.

Manny Arvon, superintendent of the Berkeley County schools, said they expected only 20 new students to participate this year, but 87 enrolled.

“Through this program, we’re offering three hours of college credit for 75 bucks and there are scholarships available,” he said. “Our goal is students leaving our district with associate degrees down the road, and we’re on our track right now to do that.”

The Berkeley County district has about 20,000 students, so Arvon expects the program to grow by hundreds of students in the near future.

“This program is the real deal. It gets those students who might not be interested in that four-year degree. But it puts them on track to have a great life and career.” – Supt. Manny Arvon

“This program is the real deal,” he said. “It gets those students who might not be interested in that four-year degree. But it puts them on track to have a great life and career.”

The Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 284 on Tuesday. The Senate Finance Committee approved it Wednesday. That set it up to be on first reading in the Senate today, which means the Senate is likely to pass it as early as Tuesday.

Right after the Education Committee approved the bill, Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, said. “I truly believe that we, as a committee, have started the process of making a day in the history of education. I really believe that. Nothing’s perfect, but I really believe that this is a great start.”

Senate approves a bill for more local flexibility.

The education bill approved by the full Senate this week is Senate Bill 62, which would allow counties to hire persons with professional administrative certificates and five years of experience to serve as attendance directors.

“All this bill will do is give our county boards a little more flexibility and allow more people to do this, especially when there’s no certified person stepping up.” – Sen. Kenny Mann

“Currently in the state, you have to get a certification, take a class to be an attendance director,” Senate Education Chairman Kenny Mann told his colleagues. “All this bill will do is give our county boards a little more flexibility and allow more people to do this, especially when there’s no certified person stepping up. This will change it up to where an administrator who has been an administrator for at least five years can also qualify and meet the hiring criteria for the attendance director.”

Mann added, “I agree to this bill because I’ve seen this in the past, and I feel that especially someone that’s been in administration for five years, they’ll know attendance probably better than anybody.”

The Senate voted 30 to nothing to approve Senate Bill 62. It has gone to the House Education Committee for further consideration.

The Senate Education Committee this week also considered another bill but decided it needed more study. Senate Bill 52 would provide that the maximum licensed school psychologist-pupil ratio should be 1,500 pupils for each licensed school psychologist. The law currently has no ratio for psychologists.

Committee members had many questions about the bill, including how much it would cost. They heard from two school psychologists that the need for psychologists in schools is increasing.

One of them was Karen Cummings, legislative chairwoman for the West Virginia School Psychologists Association and a school psychologist in Kanawha County. She said about 20 percent of West Virginia children have behavioral or mental health issues.

“We’re seeing it at earlier and earlier ages,” Cummings said. “I know that the drug epidemic that’s going on has really, really impacted our schools. We’re even seeing very, very young children, preschoolers, coming with very serious issues.”

Prevention is the key to stopping the cycle, she said, but she could not tell the committee what the correct ratio of students to psychologists should be.

Senate Education Vice-Chairman Robert Karnes, R-Upshur – sitting in for Mann – decided to let a subcommittee consider the bill further to work out issues before returning it to the full committee. He assigned Sen. Mark Drennan, R-Putnam, and Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, and Plymale to the subcommittee.

Senator calls for school choice.

Also in the Senate this week, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, took advantage of National School Choice Week to tell her colleagues, “School choice is an idea whose time has come.”

Suggesting that lack of school choice is responsible for West Virginia’s low student achievement rankings, she said, “We are attacked when we attempt to do anything new or different, but yet we know we have to go somewhere new. School choice enables more people to participate and have decisions as to what is best for their families. It helps eliminate discrimination. It helps to encourage those who are at the bottom. It is something that everywhere it’s done has helped public schools to get better. One of the things that I’m tired of hearing whenever someone brings up school choice is to bring up racism.”

Rucker then read an excerpt from Mother Jones magazine about black civic leaders who asked the NAACP to reconsider its opposition to charter schools, arguing charter schools give black students opportunities to excel. She noted that Mother Jones is not a conservative publication.

“When you have competition, you have freedom, and the more freedom and the more competition leads to improvement in all areas,” Rucker said. “Competition promotes excellence. Anyone who would object to competition in regard to providing education services has a special and personal interest in maintaining the status quo, a status quo that is not living up to our hopes, dreams and aspirations for our kids. Schools that have to compete for students will become better institutions of learning. In fact, these same schools might have to compete for teachers as well, and that might have a positive effect on teachers’ working conditions and salaries.”

Rucker suggested the legislators should look at such options as education savings accounts and charter schools. “It is time that we have school choice,” she concluded.

By Jim Wallace

The West Virginia House of Delegates this week passed one bill affecting public education and moved others forward in the legislative process, but the House Education Committee killed a bill that was practically the same as one the House approved last year. That bill, House Bill 4007 would have allowed home-schooled students to participate in secondary school extracurricular activities.

In fact, the full legislature passed a bill to do that last year, and it would have become law, but Gov. Jim Justice vetoed it. Supporters of such legislation have named it after Tim Tebow, a home-schooled Florida student who won the Heisman Trophy for his success in college football. Another bill called the Tim Tebow Act, Senate Bill 130, has received the approval of the Senate Education Committee and is waiting to be considered by the Senate Finance Committee, so it is still possible that a Tim Tebow bill could get through the legislature this year.

Under House Bill 4007, a student would have had to demonstrate satisfactory evidence of academic progress for two years with average test results at or above the fourth stanine in all subject areas. While it was still alive in the House Education Committee, Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, was successful in amending it to require test results at or above the fifth stanine. Stanines four, five and six are considered average, while seven, eight and nine are above average.

Other requirements in the bill were that a student must not have reached age 18 by August 1, and the student must agree to comply with disciplinary rules applicable to all other students and abide by all West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission rules.

Bernie Dolan, executive director of the SSAC, said that, out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, 34 allow participation by home-schooled students. He said that actually is possible now under certain conditions in West Virginia. The SSAC has a rule that, if a student is enrolled at a school for four periods of classes, either virtually or in person, that student can participate in the school’s sports, he said. With the virtual school legislation passed last year, that should be easier than ever, he said.

Each state has different rules about participation. Nineteen have open participation, Dolan said, and the rest have requirements that students must enroll in at least one public school course or pass certain tests.

The committee rejected an amendment proposed by Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, to allow each county to define in-year academic progress for students. Dolan said that would be a small change from the current system.

“Each school determines their own academic eligibility. When they calculate the GPAs, they do it within each school.” – Bernie Dolan

“Each school determines their own academic eligibility. When they calculate the GPAs, they do it within each school,” he said. “The only thing that might be a little bit different is that this says the county instead of the school.”

Asked how adequate academic progress is defined for home-schooled students, Berkeley County Supt. Manny Arvon told the committee school systems use home-schooled students’ test scores and have certified teachers examine their portfolios.

After all that discussion, the committee voted nine to 16 to reject House Bill 4007. That caught some people by surprise because the bill was so similar to legislation passed last year, and the bill had support of House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, and Vice-Chairman Statler. The other delegates who supported the bill were all Republicans: Martin Atkinson, R-Roane; Saira Blair, R-Berkeley; Michael Folk, R-Berkeley; Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam; John Kelly, R-Wood; Jill Upson, R-Jefferson; and Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley.

Voting against the bill was a mixture of Republicans and Democrats, including: Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier; Roy Cooper, R-Summers; Dean; Ed Evans, D-McDowell; Kenneth Hicks, D-Wayne; Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell; Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh; Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia; Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan; Matthew Roohrbach, R-Cabell; Roger Romine, R-Doddridge; Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire; Robert Thompson, D-Wayne; Danny Wagner, R-Barbour; and Steve Westfall, R-Jackson.

House approves bill for more district-level flexibility.

The education legislation the House of Delegates approved this week is House Bill 3089.

“This bill begins the transition to a process for school systems to select and adopt a wider variety of instructional resources directly from qualified vendors rather than from a list of state-selected materials.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

“This bill begins the transition to a process for school systems to select and adopt a wider variety of instructional resources directly from qualified vendors rather than from a list of state-selected materials,” House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa explained shortly before the vote. “Under the new process, vendors that want to offer instructional resources for adoption by the counties must file a statement on or before January first verifying that their materials meet certain non-negotiable criteria established by the state board, cover at least 80 percent of state-required content and skills for the subject, cost no more than the lowest wholesale price available in any other state, and that electronic files do not exceed the price of the print version. The state superintendent will provide the list of qualified vendors to the counties. County selection committees will conduct their own reviews and recommend materials to the county board for adoption by a majority vote of the members elected.”

The new process would begin for the 2019-2020 school year if the bill becomes law. During the transition, boards could adopt materials from the existing state-approved lists until they expire, Espinosa said. The state board would continue to set textbook adoption cycles by rule, he said, noting that the cycles currently run about six years. He said the bill would not apply to supplementary instructional materials that schools might want to use but are not required by the county school board.

But not every delegate was comfortable with the bill’s provisions. As he did when the bill was before the House Education Committee, Delegate Larry Rowe expressed concern about the possibility that non-scientific material could get into science textbooks. Although textbooks would have to avoid certain items deemed by the state Education Department as “non-negotiables,” such as racial bias, he said, nothing in the non-negotiables would require science verified by the scientific community, such as evolution.

“Were you able to find a place where it would be inappropriate to deny evolution in the selection of textbooks?” Rowe asked Espinosa.

“I don’t think any of those non-negotiables would cover the specific issue that you describe,” Espinosa replied, but he added that the bill still would address that concern. “Each textbook would still have to cover at least 80 percent of state-required content and skills for the subject…. But that does not absolve the school district or any individual teachers from covering 100 percent of the standards and curriculum, which are applicable to that particular class.”

“The textbooks could address the subject of evolution, deny it and it still would qualify under any standards that the state board would have. The state board doesn’t put out of bounds a denial of evolution, whereas I think most school boards at this point would.” – Delegate Larry Rowe

But if a textbook would have to cover only 80 percent of state-required content, Rowe said, “The textbooks could address the subject of evolution, deny it and it still would qualify under any standards that the state board would have. The state board doesn’t put out of bounds a denial of evolution, whereas I think most school boards at this point would.”

If a majority of three members in favor of denying evolution would get elected to a county school board, he said, that majority could prevail.

That could happen today, Espinosa responded. What would change with House Bill 3089 is that districts would not have to go through the waiver process to get materials approved, he said.

“We heard testimony from the department that acknowledged that that waiver process is not very district friendly; it can take up to a year and a half,” Espinosa said. “What we propose in this legislation does nothing to change the requirements that are currently in place today. It simply provides that flexibility for our local school districts to utilize other materials that may come available that fully meet the requirements that the board has set forth.”

Rowe still wasn’t persuaded to support the bill. “By having it open to the school boards to select, then we may have a pattern of teaching across the state that’s not uniform, that’s very different and maybe even contradictory and subject to a political process with three members of the board being elected,” he said.

“Really, the question before us is: Do we trust our local school districts, our local educators in consultation with their boards? Do we trust them to put in place a process to adopt materials that continue to comply with all the requirements that are in place today?” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

But Espinosa said, “Really, the question before us is: Do we trust our local school districts, our local educators in consultation with their boards? Do we trust them to put in place a process to adopt materials that continue to comply with all the requirements that are in place today?”

The bill would not mandate that districts take on the role of selecting textbooks, he said, because they could continue to use the state’s list.

Nevertheless, Rowe said he had grave concerns because of the textbook controversy in Kanawha County in the 1970s, when the school board office was bombed, school buses were attacked with rocks and there was a general uprising over textbooks. Some have said that was the beginning of the new right of grassroots conservatism in public schools, he said. With House Bill 3089, West Virginia could lose having general curricula across the state and students would go to college with very different opinions of what the facts are, he said.

“I just have not been convinced that we’re not opening up a Pandora’s Box with this legislation,” Rowe concluded.

However, a majority of the House agreed with the bill. It passed on a vote of 72 to 24. It has been assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Two bills clear House committees.

Two other education bills got through House committees this week. One was House Bill 4183, which would remove certain restrictions on achievement tests that must be administered to nonpublic students. Dave Mohr, senior policy analyst for the House Education Committee, said it would clean up the law, which calls for some tests that are no longer being used.

Espinosa added that the House passed a similar bill last year. “There currently exists a considerable disparity between the number of tests that the average student who matriculates through traditional public schools and those in the schools that are subject to this legislation,” he said. “As I recall, it was something like 17 for traditional public school student and maybe as many as 40 tests for a non-public school student.”

The Education Committee approved the bill and sent it to the full House of Delegates. It was scheduled for the second of three required readings on the House floor today, which means the House could pass the bill as soon as Monday.

Another bill previously approved by the House Education Committee received approval this week from the House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 2799 would prohibit a county superintendent of schools from requiring a physical examination to be included with the application for a minor’s work permit unless it is required by the prospective employer.

Last year, the House passed a similar bill on a vote of 87 to 12. The Senate Education Committee then approved it, but it died in the Senate on the last day of the 2017 legislative session.

As the law stands now, 13- to 15-year-olds are limited to certain kinds of work and required to get work permits approved. They must meet four requirements:

  • The prospective employer must complete part of the application.
  • The minor’s parent must complete part of it.
  • Either the school principal or the registrar of the minor must complete part of it.
  • The minor must appear physically in front of the superintendent and the superintendent must sign off that the minor did that.

The bill would do two things. One would remove the requirement for the student to appear before the superintendent, which would streamline the process. The other is that it would prohibit the superintendent from requiring a physical be included in the application for a work permit. The thought is that the individual’s employer is in a better position to determine whether a physical exam would be necessary.

House Bill 2799 was scheduled to be on first reading in the House of Delegates today. That would put it on schedule to pass in the House as early as Tuesday.

Snapshot

The “energetic young members” on the all-girls’ Putnam Pink Ladies of Mountain View Elementary (Hurricane – Putnam County) have “made a name for themselves in FIRST LEGO League competitions” in West Virginia, WVNews (1/22) reports. Then-fourth grader Paisley Tabor launched the team at Mountain View three years ago, and the students recently “impressed the judges at their first regional qualifier at Jackson’s Mill, where they received the Rising Star award, recognizing them as a rookie team with great potential.” After the Putnam Pink Ladies “scored high in the 2016 state tournament at Fairmont State University,” they were “invited to compete in the North American International LEGO League Championship at LEGOLAND theme park in Carlsbad, California.” Lesley Rosier-Tabor, an engineer and team coach, “said the team members, now students at Hurricane Middle School, got off to a late start in 2017 and, because of busy schedules, were only able to meet on Sundays, to do research, design robots and practice speeches.”

Featured

By Jim Wallace

Many people have complained that too much pressure is being put on public schools to cure all of society’s ills. Many educators say that more and more children are coming to school with behavioral and other issues that would more likely have been addressed at home in the past.

But there are people who feel called to take some of that burden off of schools by getting involved directly with children who are at risk. Among those people are Pastor Matt Santen and members of his River Ridge Church in Charleston. For more than a year now, they have been devoting much effort to making a difference in the lives of children on Charleston’s West Side, one of the most troubled urban areas in the very rural state of West Virginia. It provides an example of how volunteers can help their community and schools by directly helping children.

The River Ridge volunteers do their work at the Second Avenue Community Center, which is very close to Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School. Santen says their work has two sides: the building side and the people side.

On the people side, church members participate in the Homework Buddies program in which three to six of them sit at a table and help the kids, who walk over from the school, do their homework each weekday from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. River Ridge members also provide meals for the kids at the center on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“On Fridays, we send home what we call Backpack Blessings,” Santen said. “So we’ll send home a backpack full of food with each kid.”


Read and Relax

On the building side, church members have been renovating the community center room by room. So far, they have fixed up a homework room and turned another into a “read-and-relax” room with color-coded books that match the reading program at the school. Now, they are in the process of redoing the dining area and sprucing up the kitchen.

The renovation work is a challenge, Santen said, because the center is “really old,” apparently from the middle of the 20th century. “Back when there was segregation in Charleston, it was the all-black school,” he said. “We’ve discovered that old buildings are hard to refurbish.”

Fortunately, Santen has a large congregation from which to draw volunteers. River Ridge is actually one church with two locations: one in Charleston and the other in Teays Valley in Putnam County. Together, they have about 1,800 members with about 700 of them associated with the Charleston location. It is a nondenominational church, although it has ties to Chestnut Ridge Church in Morgantown and South Ridge Church in Fairmont.

The decision to get involved at Second Avenue Community Center was a result of some collective soul-searching.


Homework Room

“Two years ago, we, just as a church, were praying about where does God want us to go next,” Santen said “What does God want us to be involved with? Really through prayer and just asking questions about who’s doing what in Charleston, we basically became connected with the center.”

Santen formed a friendship with a West Side pastor and member of Charleston City Council, the Rev. James Ealy of New Life Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. Ealy is essentially the chief executive officer of the Second Avenue Community Center, Santen said, meaning he’s not real hands-on in the center’s operations, but the buck stops with him.

img “One of the things that we as a church are really good at is working with kids.” – Pastor Matt Santen

“As a church, we said we wanted to do something on the West Side,” Santen said. “Then on the next level down, one of the things that we as a church are really good at is working with kids.”

The West Side – at least the flat area between Washington Street and the Kanawha River – is one of the poorest areas of the city, so it has many needs. Members of the River Ridge congregation believed they could make the biggest difference by working with children. That led them to Ealy and the Second Avenue Community Center.


Time for some fun

About 30 to 40 kids are enrolled in the center’s after-school programs, but the average number there daily is about 25 to 30, Santen said. After they walk over from the school, they work on their homework, play outside and get dinner before their parents pick them up between 6:00 and 7:00.

Project is about establishing good foundations.

Many people in West Virginia are focused on the opioid epidemic causing problems all around the state. Santen said that can be addressed in different ways. For example, one way is to help addicts recover. Another way is to “address issues upstream,” as he put it. In other words, the River Ridge volunteers want to catch kids when they are aged six to 10, Santen said, “and give them a good education base, give them a good foundation of who they are in relationship to God, give them a good foundation about what it means to be a good neighbor with other people.”

That is, they are trying to give the children the qualities associated with being good citizens.

“If they have that foundational time in elementary school, they’re going to thrive in middle school, they’re going to thrive in college, and they’re going to have the ability to be a part of productive society, if you will.” – Pastor Matt Santen

“If they have that foundational time in elementary school, they’re going to thrive in middle school, they’re going to thrive in college, and they’re going to have the ability to be a part of productive society, if you will,” Santen said. “The kids on the West Side just face challenges that a lot of other kids don’t in terms of broken homes, in terms of poverty, in terms of not getting the educational resources that they need. We want to give them a good foundation of those things that will allow them to thrive later in life.”

Give the kids a great foundation in education, relationships and spirituality, he said, and they will have stronger morals and ethics.

Some might give Ridge Ridge’s project a label, such as “community immersion,” but not Santen. “You define community immersion, and I’ll tell you if we fit it,” he said. His congregation is putting financial, time, energy and leadership resources into an existing organization to be a great resource to that organization. He is not concerned about what to call those efforts.

The River Ridge congregation started participating in Homework Buddies in January 2017 and began the first renovation work at the center in January or February last year. But that came only after a year’s worth of groundwork of building relationships and friendships. “Relationships need to precede action,” Santen said. He was one of two River Ridge members who went in early to do Homework Buddies.

“I’ve been doing Homework Buddies for a year and a half,” he said. “So I started about a semester before everybody else just because I wanted to see if it was going to work before I threw somebody else to the wolves – before I found out what goes on.”

The project is a learning experience.

In the past year, the River Ridge volunteers have learned some lessons, other than that old buildings are hard to renovate.

“One of the things that we have learned is that kids are kids. All have the same fundamental loves, desires and problems in the sense they love to laugh and they respond well to relationships.” – Pastor Matt Santen

“One of the things that we have learned is that kids are kids,” Santen said. “All have the same fundamental loves, desires and problems in the sense they love to laugh and they respond well to relationships.”

They also have learned the value of partnership. Instead of going to the Second Avenue Community Center and telling the director what they intended to do, they asked how they could help. “We don’t want to be the big church from the hill that comes down and says, ‘Here’s what you all need,’” Santen said. “Instead, we’ve really tried to say, ‘How can we help? What resources do you need? And how can we come alongside that?’”

River Ridge volunteers didn’t invent anything. The center already was providing meals and helping students with homework. River Ridge provides about 25 volunteers for Homework Buddies, about 35 to help with meals and a total of about 50 over time to fix up the building.

“It’s really gone pretty smoothly,” Santen said. River Ridge has formed a partnership with New Life Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The two pastors have done a pulpit exchange. They also have conducted a combined Good Friday service.

One River Ridge member, Betsy Shaak, serves as the church’s West Side director. She makes sure Homework Buddies sessions go well. She makes sure the meal coordinator gets the resources she needs. She has met a couple of times with the principal at the school to learn about the Accelerated Reader program. She makes sure the read-and-relax room is coordinated with what the school is doing. Books in the room are identified by color, so the students can read the appropriate ones and take Accelerated Reader tests the next day.

River Ridge and New Life are not the only churches involved at Second Avenue Community Center. Santen said other Charleston churches, including Trinity Lutheran Church and St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, also help with meals and other tasks.

The churches’ efforts help the community and the schools, but there are no issues about violating the separation between church and state. The Second Avenue Community Center once was part of a network of such centers owned and operated by the City of Charleston, but late in the 20th century, the city divested itself of all but a few community centers. The center now is run by a foundation associated with New Life.

By giving students the tools they need to excel in the classroom, the volunteers from River Ridge and the other churches help the school system without working directly in the schools. Santen believes the efforts have been successful, although they haven’t had enough time to produce any data to confirm that. He just knows that the people who were involved before River Ridge have said the children are better off and more engaged. They’re also generally getting better grades.

Working at Second Avenue Community Center can be time-consuming for the River Ridge volunteers, Santen said, but they’re happy with the experience. He said it’s an example of the saying, ‘Many hands make light work.’ Volunteers for Homework Buddies commit to going to the center once a week for an hour or so. Meal teams commit to making a meal once a month, so that’s a couple of hours once a month. Each building work team has an “architect” and a “foreman.”

“Those people definitely work their butts off for a period of a couple of months,” Santen said.

“One of the problems that these kids have is that adults pop in and out of their lives.” – Pastor Matt Santen

“With the Homework Buddies especially, we really stress commitment,” he said. “One of the problems that these kids have is that adults pop in and out of their lives. Whether it’s a mom or a dad that’s here today and gone tomorrow, whether it’s an uncle or a brother or whatever, there’s just way too much inconsistency in their lives. So we really stress to our homework buddies that this is an every week commitment.”

With those provisions, it seems this type of project can work in one of the most densely populated parts of the state, but could it also work in rural areas? Santen said the principles of having churches partner with community centers should be the same. He said the challenge would be transportation in a rural setting, where most kids and their parents could not get to and from the centers by walking.

If the transportation issue could be overcome, Santen said, the important element is to have a church with a heart for investing and putting resources into a particular community or school. He said that church should find out who already is providing some services and then add to them.

“We have not tried to reinvent the wheel or build our own wheel,” Santen said. “We’ve just said, ‘Who’s already doing it and how can we help them?’”

Any church could do that, he said. If no one is doing it, the church would have to start from scratch, he said, but start with something small and manageable, and then build from it. It’s better to do something small well than to try to do too much and not do it well, Santen said.

Editor’s Note: All photographs provided by River Ridge Church. The River Ridge website address is www.RiverRidge.org  

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Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.