IT’S GOT the swimming and archery, arts and crafts and campfire of a regular church camp. It’s got high school and college students serving as counselors, and a priest in attendance, and it’s even held at the Episcopal Church’s Camp Gravatt in Aiken. But there are no worship services, it’s far more racially integrated than most church programs, and parents pay just $25 to send their children for a week.
Camp AIR — Adventures in Reading — is the brainchild of the Rev. Susan Heath, the Episcopal priest who coordinates the S.C. Bishops’ Public Education Initiative and was inspired by a group of nuns in Kingstree who send kids in their after-school program to camp for good behavior and good grades.
The camp is designed for rising fifth- and sixth-graders from Aiken County and Richland 1, recommended by their principals because they need some reading help. Certified teachers lead them through three “reading stations” every morning, and the afternoons are filled with camp activities tailored to the reading. The year they read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, they learned to make Turkish delights.
Rev. Heath’s dream is to have residential and day camps across the state, but for now, there’s just the one, this year July 23-28, with 30 students.
At a cost of $24,000, Camp AIR is the bishops’ most expensive program. (They’re still accepting donations to pay for this year’s camp.) Their central focus is less expensive, less flashy and bigger, much bigger: tutoring, particularly in low-income schools. For nearly three years, the bishops of South Carolina’s African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and United Methodist churches have been working as a group and individually to encourage nearly all of their 800,000 parishioners to volunteer in our public schools.
Episcopal Bishop Andrew Waldo said during a recent visit to my parish that they had already recruited 1,500 to 2,000 tutors — and he was clearly on a mission to grow that number. When he met with our parish leadership, he was as interested in what we were doing to support the education initiative as in finances or how we were encouraging church growth. In a meeting with the congregation, he did a hard sell for tutoring, which he called “really a great way to change lives,” noting that “we’re not there to proselytize; we’re there to raise up children.”
State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman tells skeptical educators that church volunteers “can’t go in there talking about Jesus,” but “they can go in there and act like him."
All but the AME bishop had been working together for years on Christian unity. But almost five years ago they realized they were squandering their potential, so they held a retreat to think and pray about how they could use their partnership “to the building up of the Kingdom of God and to make a difference around us.”
Troubled by the injustice of a school system that fails to offer a decent education to far too many students, they settled easily on providing support for the schools and the students who most needed help. They invited the state’s African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop to join them and turned this into a major part of their ministries, in keeping with their belief that Christians are called by God to serve as the hands of Christ, by doing his work in the world.
“The initiative’s real push is to get people to think about relationship building, and being more involved, and going to a school in their neighborhood to introduce themselves and say, ‘We’re here to serve you; what do you need?’” Rev. Heath told me. “People respond when they hear we are there without an agenda to fix them but an agenda to serve them.”
Actually, there is another agenda. One of the goals is to “be in ongoing dialogue with the General Assembly and Department of Education to support, encourage and ultimately transform South Carolina’s educational system into a more equitable system and to raise up the truly great work being done by so many teachers and administrators.”
The bishops meet regularly with Ms. Spearman, who told me the most important thing they do is pray for her. They also provide material support when she needs it. They drummed up a corps of tutors when she went into the Timmonsville schools last year to turn them around. They assembled a carload of school supplies for her to distribute when she held a meeting with Allendale County parents this spring to talk about taking over the schools.
Others are learning to call the initiative for help as well.
When Teach for America asked for help welcoming a new batch of teachers in Orangeburg County last summer, Rev. Heath made a couple of phone calls and arranged for St. Paul’s United Methodist Church to hold a covered-dish dinner. When a Hand Middle School teacher expressed concerns about students getting into trouble when schools close for a half day, Heyward Street United Methodist Church invited students to sign up to spend those afternoons at the church, with snacks, recreation and supervision; other churches are developing similar programs. After a tutor at Logan Elementary School coordinated summer educational activities at a nearby community center, the principal asked if he could get more tutors to help so more students could participate.
That’s what the bishops want.
“We’re committed to being a full-fledged partner, across the board,” Rev. Heath said. “And we find that when we commit to being present, we’re asked to do other things.”
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.
Goals of the SC Bishops’ Public Education Initiative
To raise up tutors, mentors and after-school enrichment volunteers in support of South Carolina’s hard-working teachers and of under-served children, aiming big: for most of the 800,000 parishioners in the judicatories’ churches to make being in relationship with children a part of what they do as people of faith.
To be in ongoing dialogue with the General Assembly and Department of Education to support, encourage and ultimately transform South Carolina’s educational system into a more equitable system and to raise up the truly great work being done by so many teachers and administrators.