Breaking Down Barriers in the Crescent of Poverty
by All Our Children Network member, Patti Blaine
St. Paul’s Adopt-a-Classroom
Another nickname for the area is the Fatal Crescent. Hand-in-hand with falling high school graduation rates, lack of financial stability, neglected and inadequate housing, and food deserts come violent crime and high infant mortality rates. The infant mortality rate in Rochester is higher than that in New York City, and a significant percentage of Rochester’s city school children have witnessed violent crime by the time they are 7 years-old.
Among the several city schools in the Crescent is the city’s largest bilingual elementary school, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School #9. There, for nearly 16 years, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has maintained a ministry, the Adopt-a-Classroom tutoring program – a push-in/pull-out literacy intervention program that provides volunteer tutors, mostly from the suburbs, to work with Kindergarten through 2nd grade students during the school day.
On the 27th of March, I received an email from, Paula, the current coordinator of the tutoring program. She asked me, as prior coordinator of the program, if I’d ever heard of All Our Children or other Episcopal parishes that partner with public schools.
My reaction? Surprised is an understatement. Flabbergasted fits. I was stunned to learn that other Episcopal churches – dioceses even – have programs similar to ours. How I would have loved to have known of them during my tenure as program coordinator! I cannot remember if I asked Paula whether I could go along, or if she asked me if I would like to, but I was eager to sign up immediately.
One of the most difficult aspects of our program for me as coordinator was its seeming lack of theological underpinnings. I think that may have been a difficult aspect of it for the parish of St. Paul’s as well, as funding (budgets are mission statements!) for the program has been uncertain for a number of years. As coordinator I found that it was necessary to articulate for volunteers and for supporters why the Church should be in the business of intervening in public education. While my faith assures me that, yes, we are being the hands and feet of Christ by being present for the children – by taking the time to listen to them and to read with them – I am just one voice, and a voice trained in drawing, painting, art history and a smattering of psychology, not theology. But I believe we are teaching the children that they have value to us and that their education is valuable to their community by meeting Christ in them, and that our Christian faith compels us to meet their educational needs.
Imagine my joy to learn that there are other Episcopalians in the same line of work, and that some of them – be still my heart – are ordained, and that they have articulated those same theological underpinnings for their programs in writing! Such long-awaited affirmation! I had to attend the conference to learn from others.
From the moment Paula and I landed at BWI and found ourselves sharing a van to the conference venue, we were as eager to share our stories as we were to listen to those of others. Every meal was an opportunity to listen, to hear, to tell, and to relate. We stole moments in between sessions, over coffee, on the bus to and from Baltimore, and in the cathedral gift shop. We were not alone in our ache to learn and to share. For me, the serendipitous late arrival of the field trip buses was a particularly Spirit-filled event as I watched little knots of people gather. Earnest faces, eager voices, careful listening, loving curiosity.
I jolted awake one night during the conference. We had been challenged to name the barriers that carve up our cities, and divide neighborhood from neighborhood, our church from the school we serve. A section of Rochester’s Inner Loop, a beltway around its downtown, forms the shorter curved edge of the city’s Crescent, and there has been talk of filling in parts of the Loop in order to revitalize the city center. I had held out some hope that that physical barrier’s eradication might improve the long-term health of the neighborhood around School #9. I startled awake that night realizing that filling in the Inner Loop – even if they fill the portion adjacent to the school’s neighborhood – will not have a positive impact if the powers-that-be do not also reroute the railroad. St. Paul’s is separated from School #9’s neighborhood by the Loop, the railroad and years of uneven wealth distribution exacerbated by the presence of both.
However, the challenge went beyond barrier recognition. We are challenged to penetrate those barriers through community-building. We are challenged to join with other neighborhood organizations and religious institutions to build a circle of care around our city’s children. We are challenged to envision our fragmented city, the crescent and everything that defines its inner struggles and outer edges, joined into a circle that nurtures, supports and uplifts the least among us.
While I am no longer coordinator of the Adopt-a-Classroom program, I remain deeply passionate about its purpose. I left the All Our Children conference both emboldened by what I saw and heard there and overwhelmed by a new, deeper awareness of the work God has given us to do. I am deeply grateful.