Members of The River Christian Reformed Church in Redlands, Calif., have been engaged with students and teachers at nearby Lugonia Elementary School since 2011, contributing to the students’ achievements and the school climate. The extensive partnership, which includes literacy, physical education, and teacher recognition programs, caught the attention of the California School Boards Association last year, earning both institutions the association’s Golden Bell Award for contributing to excellence in education.
The partnership began with a recognition of need. Rev. Scott Elgersma, pastor at The River CRC, noticed that Lugonia Elementary was consecutively selected for extra help from the community, so he contacted the school to propose a more structured support system. At the time, Lugonia held over 90 percent socio-economically disadvantaged students and were not experiencing significant growth in their Academic Performance Index scores. School principal Kathy Jeide and assistant principal Jennifer Hosch also observed that students behaved appropriately inside the classroom but abandoned these manners on the playground. Early discussions between the church and school administrations centred around fostering deeper student connections that would positively affect achievement, attendance, and behavior.
“I don’t know how to help, but I do know how to play!” said The River’s youth pastor, Nick In’t Hout. With that, a supervised intramural sports program emerged. Church volunteers executed the program throughout lunch and recess. Debbie Bueerman, a staff member at The River, noticed a staggering difference for two brothers who had often exhibited aggressive behavior and bullying tactics. Bueerman said that “the incentive to take part in the intramurals was all it took.” Additionally, the volunteers’ influence taught the boys proper conflict resolution for the future.
Through the years, the partnership has expanded. On any day of the school week, around 20 volunteers serve. Currently, their work extends to the cafeteria, library, and classroom. While the intramurals program is for upper-level students, volunteer Alivia Hibbler developed a program called Revive PE for lower grades. In the classroom, volunteers also help the younger students with reading through The Book Bridges Program. The church’s service is not limited to the students; once a year, The River volunteers organize a teacher appreciation week.
Despite the program’s obvious success, complaints did arise from the larger community, with concerns over a perceived breach of separation between church and state. These complaints were dispelled by the fact that there is no legal contract for the Lugonia-River partnership. Volunteers are not on campus to proselytize but to model good character and sportsmanship.
In presenting the Golden Bell award last year, the board association, a secular organization that “promotes excellence in education and school board governance by recognizing outstanding programs and governance practices,” recognized The River “as Lugonia’s missing piece.” The results of the collaboration confirm this—attendance and grades have improved, and problems with student behaviour have diminished.