The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
On weekdays, images of Christ are covered in the classrooms at Avondale Pattillo United Methodist Church. Bibles are tucked away and crosses are stashed so public school students can learn in a neutral zone.
To the government-supported tenant International Community School, the church is a landlord, not a gateway to salvation. The campus is safe and equipped with everything a young school needs, from offices to a cafeteria. More than 300 students pack tiny classrooms and spill onto the playground to unwind, their laughter piercing the silence of sanctity.
Another 100 kids are whisked away to learn in Stone Mountain where a second church partner has offered classrooms at a discount.Vino Wong, [email protected] Posters illustrating Old Testament stories hang inside a Friendship Community Church, where Fulton Leadership Academy students Brison Finney (left) and Kamari Smith study.
Across metro Atlanta, church campuses are becoming sanctuaries for cash-strapped start-up charter schools. The partnering has provided classrooms for hundreds of Georgia public school students. Charter schools save on rent and churches get help covering expenses.
"There were no available facilities in our price range," said principal Laurent Ditmann of ICS, which moved to Pattillo in 2002. "We are very serious about the separation between church and state, but at the same time we are dealing with two churches that are very supportive of our mission. It really is a careful arrangement. A third of our students are Muslims.”
Churches and charters enter into contracts that mandate a clear separation between learning and liturgy. In most cases, school functions are on weekdays when churches are usually vacant. Classes often end before evening Bible study. About 10 churches have such partnerships.
“It’s a true win-win,” said Andrew Lewis, chief program officer for the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “The school, however, [has] to be very transparent with parents and incoming students that they are not affiliated with the church. They are simply using the facility, no different than if they were in a lease agreement with any other landlord.”
The relationship can also be “potentially treacherous” if a school is not mindful of its students beliefs, adds constitutional law attorney Gerry Weber. “The test ultimately is whether [people] of minority religious faiths would feel like outsiders.”
Often new state charter schools have only six months to find a location before opening day. In addition, charters sometimes open with only about 60 percent of their funding. It can take up to a year for some allocations to trickle in. Facility costs are about 15 percent of a charter's budget.
When Ivy Preparatory Academy inducted their inaugural class of 150, the school for girls was housed inside of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Peachtree Corners.
“They came to us back in July of 2008 in a lurch as far as having a place to put their first class of students,” said Max Yost church administrator.“It just seemed like a good thing to do. Their office space wasn't ready yet. We were able to work out what the rent would be.’’
Officials at The Main Street Academy of Fulton County looked at pricey real estate too, but chose to temporarily open on two church campuses that had assisted in their push for a parent-driven public school.
“We wanted to support the community that supported us,” said Carol Shaginaw, board president of Main Street, which opened in August. “The educational buildings of the churches were vacant and we brought them back to life.”
Main Street reconfigured hallways, expanded classrooms and added wiring for computers. The church gets the benefit of the makeover when school is out.
Renting to schools also can bring money to church budgets hurting from declining donations. Congregations across the nation are struggling with debt. Church foreclosures have tripled since 2007, with as many as 100 churches filing bankruptcy last year and nearly 200 Atlanta churches facing foreclosure, according to a Thomson Reuters Westlaw study.
The Museum School of Avondale Estates pays about $7,000 monthly to rent space at Avondale Estates First Baptist. ICS pays $9,000 monthly to Pattillo and St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal, about one-third of the cost of an office lease.
By comparison, Ivy Prep, now at 460 students, pays $400,000 annually for its three-story glass buildings. The schools also must carry liability insurance.
"We are under fair market rate," said the Rev. David Allen Grady, of Avondale Pattillo. "The church has a history of having either a school or a preschool of its own. The people of the church see [this] as a ministry we can provide of hospitality by being able to host the school. "
With the savings Fulton Leadership Academy is realizing at Friendship Community Church, the charter was able to offer transportation to its 104 students. The 65-acre church has tennis and basketball courts, a gym and cafeteria with a stage and piano.
“Every person I have seen from Friendship has been warm and welcoming,” said parent Dawn Moulton, who enrolled her sixth grader in the academy for the rigor and sees the church campus as a bonus." I thought maybe some of the holiness would rub off .”
The biggest drawback for charters in churches is space. ICS in Avondale hopes to move into a DeKalb Schools building in 2012.
“We can’t grow,” said Ditmann. "We are landlocked."
Fulton Leadership uses tables instead of desks in classrooms to fit everyone inside and stashes lockers in the gym. The principal took over the pastor's office because it is one of the few rooms he can lock at night to keep student records confidential.
“I said it half-whining like a congregant, ‘Pastor, can I have your office? I need a place to meet with parents,' ’’ recalled principal Gavin Samms. He hasn’t had the heart to remove the reverand’s smiling photo from the wall.
Weekend duty for charters in churches also can be taxing. Someone has to stay late on Fridays to set up classrooms for church use and restore them on Sunday nights for classes on Monday.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have sued school systems over similar partnerships they believe violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution including those holding graduations in churches.
Robert Boston, spokesman for Americans United, says charters should keep their distance.
"Charter schools are not private schools ... If they are going to locate in a church, [they]cannot include any devotional activity, worship or prayer. Religious symbols to the largest extent possible should be removed or covered. If there are churches that don't want to do that, they shouldn't enter into these agreements."
Grady said he and his congregation are careful not to let religion mingle with the education going on, although church volunteers do read to kids and donate coats for the poor.
He said the church strives "to be as accommodating as possible.’’
A proactive engagement of church and community! One of many opportunities congregations ought to consider to interact with their context.