Program Created by 110-Year-Old Black Church Becomes ‘Lifesaver’ for Madison Parents  During Pandemic

It was another long morning in early September, and, like countless other parents, Jodie Pope-Williams, an academic advisor at Madison Area Technical College, found herself in the same place yet again: tired, anxious and crying, trying to balance her own remote work with her son’s virtual learning.

Eight-year-old Cameron attends One City Schools, a local charter program which has offered students in-person learning since the fall. Pope-Williams and Cameron’s father like the school, but both have high-risk family members, and their son has Type 1 diabetes — factors that caused worry about sending him back.

In March, when parents were thrust into the so-called “new normal,” Pope-Williams had been able to keep her chin up: working from home and online learning felt fresh well into April and May, she said. Then the summer rolled around, and things took a turn for the worst. She watched as Cam, a quick-witted, outgoing child, grew despondent.

“It didn’t take me long to see that him staying engaged in classwork was taking a hit,” she said. Pope-Williams thought about the school-to-prison pipeline, and about how, in just a year, Cam would be in the third grade, the year reading scores become predictive of the likelihood that a child will graduate. She reshuffled her work schedule to make more time to support him through school. But most days, it didn’t feel like enough.

That was all before that Tuesday in September, when a visit to her Facebook homepage changed everything. Pope-Williams came upon a notification from Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the 110-year-old congregation she had been a part of since the age of 12. The largest Black church in the Madison area, Mt. Zion sits on the city’s Southside. To many congregants, including Pope-Williams, it isn’t just a place of worship: it’s family.

The Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen and newly minted youth minister Richard Jones Jr. planned to give families free access to an academic support program called School Without Walls, the announcement read. The offering would run three-and-a-half hours every morning, five days a week. For Pope-Williams, School Without Walls presented an attractive alternative to her son’s school: it was a place she could trust, a place that felt like home.

“I know they’re going to support him, in terms of health and academically,” she said. “It was a lifesaver for us.”

Parents with children in School Without Walls told The 74 that the program brought them relief and their children academic help, at a time when they couldn’t find those things elsewhere. Across the country, some Black families have expressed reluctance over sending their children back to school. Their wariness reflects the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on communities of color, and a mistrust of the public schools, which long predates the pandemic, but has intensified during it. In contrast, African American churches have been havens for decades.

In a time of political instability, global disruption, and a complex, virulent disease, one solution to some of these parents’ problems emerged from something simple: human relationships forged at a faith-based institution.

“It makes me want to help more because of that community aspect — that piece is real,” said parent and church member Faleshuh Walker, who works at School Without Walls and sends her children there. “They really change lives, they really care … If I was hungry, I know they’d knock on my door [to give me] food. If I was cold, they’d find somewhere for me to go. It’s bigger than just the school piece. It’s life.”

The church’s prominent role in the city and the involvement of renowned University of Wisconsin-Madison-based education scholar Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings — also a longtime Mt. Zion congregant — helped School Without Walls attract a range of partners; the United Way, anonymous donors, and Dane County Human Services all contributed staff funding. Edgewood College, a local liberal arts school, supplied and paid for several undergraduates studying education to be classroom assistants. And the Madison Metropolitan School District provided meals, so the kids could have free breakfast, lunch and a snack every day.

School Without Walls is an offshoot of a summer learning and enrichment program that Ladson-Billings and Jones launched back in June to help 3rd- and 4th-graders confronting pandemic-related learning loss.

“We knew the [summer slide] would be hyperextended because of COVID and the abrupt switch to virtual learning in the middle of the semester,” Jones said. “Consistency [with remote learning] was a problem we saw last spring. And we saw it in September when schools started back up: communication problems, tech problems. We’re here to aid that.”

Since the fall, he’s been in regular contact with counselors from nearby schools, including Lincoln and Midvale Elementary, in order to recruit the children who need the program the most. “We’re looking for the kids who wouldn’t go to class if they weren’t here, wouldn’t do their homework, wouldn’t show up,” he said.

“A lot of parents are hesitant to even send their kids to school,” added Rev. Allen. “These parents have been willing to send them to our program …The work we’ve done in the community allows parents to feel comfortable sending their children to our church, even when they won’t send kids to school.”

School Without Walls’ robust community partnerships and financial support translates into an enviable staff-to-student ratio: eight tutors for a maximum of 30 students a day, ranging in age from pre-K through 5th grade. Since the start of the pandemic, the initiative has seen about 70 students come and go, Jones said. For some, it’s been a stepping stone in the journey back to school itself.  

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