Welcome Tracey Beal from Phoenix, Arizona to our City Gospel Movements podcast. Tracey is a pastor at Pure Heart Church as well as founder and Executive Director of School Connect in Arizona. School Connect creates dynamic partnerships among businesses, faith community, government, and nonprofit organizations to support local schools. To date they have facilitated partnerships with over 430 schools and are being asked to share their model around the United States.
As Stephanie Wieber mentions in the podcast, if we had a dollar for every time we recommend School Connect, we would be rich! Listen to this episode to learn how School Connect flipped the model of church-school partnerships on its head. They even have the United States Board of Education asking them, “How do you do this?”
Listen now or read the show notes below.
What is your background?
I was working with Young Life College in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU). Part of my role was to take college students on missions trips to countries around the world. During one trip, we happened to be in Peru with college students where we were serving in a public school and the people wanted to know why these college students were serving here. This gave us an incredible opportunity to share the gospel with them.
I realized that in every country we go to, we focus on schools as the way to minister to and love the community. I asked myself, “Why aren’t we doing this is the United States?” There is so much need in my own city of Phoenix, Arizona. We need to serve in schools overseas, but let’s do it at home too. This a-ha moment birthed our idea for School Connect.
What Are the core needs in Your city of Phoenix?
Arizona is really struggling to move students along. We have a 35% rate of poverty. Our 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math levels are close to that percentage as well. We have lost almost 2,000 teachers in our system. The pipeline going into our universities is down by 25% and the number of teachers that can retire in next year or two is 25%. We are low in pay, low in the number of people going into education and that all effects how well our students are doing educationally.
What Did you first Learn when starting this work?
Through connections and previous experience with nonprofits in education and through ASU, our team learned about Asset-Based Community Development. This was a whole new way of looking at a situation. Instead of focusing on a needs-based assessment, we were looking at what the community wants and what resources they already have in their neighborhood that can be used to reach their goals. As compassionate, empathetic people, we sometimes want to solve peoples problems for them instead of walking alongside them while they solve the problem.
How did you CREATE THE SCHOOL CONNECT MODEL?
It really was a complete paradigm shift of putting the school at the center, which means we start with top leadership in the school district. We begin with talking to the superintendents to really understand what their vision and needs are. Then we bring community partners alongside the school all the while ensuring the school stays in the driver’s seat. Keeping the school (principle) in the driver’s seat creates buy-in for the superintendents and allows the community partners to understand what the real vision and needs are for each school. It could be 3rd grade reading levels, helping to retain teachers, parent support, after-school programs; whatever it is, they get to be strategic in the driver’s seat.
Then, the community partners come to the table and we match the partnerships with what the school really needs so that the strategic partnerships can move the dial in the school and community. These diverse community partnerships create a “village of support” around our schools which is one of School Connect’s main goals. From a faith based perspective, a believer witnesses the journey of serving the school and rubbing elbows with others in their community who aren’t believers yet!
How do you train Partners?
Our secret sauce is a round table conversation that we call a CAFÉ (Community and Family Engagement). It’s really simple. It’s an event where principles host a table of community partners. Schools invite potential partners like the local pastors, business leaders, nonprofit directors, and others to a table to share about their school. The school will share the great things they are accomplishing as well as the challenges they are facing. They help the community fall in love with the school and create space to hear from community partners. We want to learn what a community partner means to the school and how partners’ goals as a church, organization, or business align. We want to build win-win partnerships. It’s the only way you really do create sustainability.
CAFEs allow vision to be cast before the school year even starts. During the CAFE, the school and partners create a plan for the school year. This way, when everyone regroups during quarterly check-ins there’s celebrating, thanking, and debriefing together rather than planning. This is not a crisis-driven program. We are working together and no one is getting wiped out. This creates sustainability too!
If we match the goals of the partners to the schools needs, then they are doing the very thing they are called to do and what they are good at doing. It produces change, but also relationships that become family. These relationships are built through other events as well. One example is Love Ours Schools Day (LOSD). This annual service day is one runway to build trusting relationships so collaboration can happen in the future. LOSD causes schools and community partners to intersect–sometimes for the first time.
However, before we even do a LOSD or a CAFÉ, we offer an online training for every sector to engage in one of these events because collaborating does not come naturally. We have realized you actually have to teach people to do this.
We even have a video called “Lost in Translation” because in partnerships there are misunderstandings and those misunderstandings can stop partnerships in their track. But if you understand the dynamic of what is happening and what the other person might be thinking, then you can pull down the barriers and continue forward.
Can you give an example of How Do you Get People on board?
A great example of this is our principal from Palo Verde Middle School. This was the very first school we built the model at. The principal turned around a middle school of 900 students by working with a village of people and then she was courageous and passionate enough to take on a school of 1,500 K-8 graders, Mountain View School.
The school was struggling academically in a part of Phoenix where there are major issues like gangs, drug addiction, and homelessness. She would say her kindergarten kids are walking through homeless encampments and drugs on their way to school. She knew she had to work with a whole community to change the culture in and around the school. In her first year she lost 30 teachers which she had to replace. In her second year, she lost 15 teachers and this year she has lost no teachers. She went from one faithful partner–Desert Christian Church–to 24 partners who are coming around this school.
The partners are providing gift cards, writing notes to teachers, becoming pen pals to build relationships with kids, helping with after school tutoring, twice a year beautification of not only the school, but the whole community around it. The city, neighborhood specialist, county healthy department, businesses and Young Life College are all involved. Young Life practiced team building with the kids during the week and then threw a huge pep-rally for all the kids who were taking Arizona Merit Test to encourage them to really try hard on this State test.
“Togetherness” is building around this school. And this takes time! Yet just a year and a half in, we are already witnessing these changes.
How do you keep track of the partners?
One great development that we were able to start this past summer was with the help of two college students from Grand Canyon University. They created a digital asset map of businesses, schools, churches, and nonprofits who could potentially become partners in their community. We can drop a pin at a school and put a 3 mile radius around it and then produce a report that gives all the schools, businesses, churches, nonprofits and School Connect partners in that area. School Connect brings together community partners with the school, principal, or representative of the local school.
We are trying to create many tools to make a clear and simple pathway for connection. We are also training school champions, these are folks in the community that walk alongside the principal who help facilitate the partnerships.
What does this look like on a Larger level?
We have been practicing this model for 12 years, but we have only really been a nonprofit for 5 years. When Obama was President, he had a strong organization that wanted to connect faith communities to schools. They contacted the Arizona Department of Education to find out the best faith community school partnership in Arizona and they identified us. We then gathered at Palo Verde Middle School with the US Department of Education, the Arizona Department of Education and the Superintendent School Board to share with them our model and story.
Since then, we have shared this model with the 21st Century National Program at their national convention in Phoenix (an after-school program), the Arizona’s School Board Association, and the Arizona Superintendents’ Association. Even more recently, the Arizona Department of Education shared School Connects video on their website!
This reproducible model is really being valued! We know it really changes when the schools have buy-in and are the ones inviting people, like the church, to the table.
How do you see this becoming a Reproducible Model?
There are amazing ministries across the country serving schools and they are doing phenomenal work. It is a great privilege to work alongside these passionate leaders. The body of Christ’s “a-ha moment” happens when we realize we can work with everybody in the community to impact schools and through schools, transform whole neighborhoods. This idea is taking hold, so wherever I go around the country, I am discovering churches saying: “Why don’t we work with the university, the government, and nonprofits? They don’t have to all be faith based, but let’s bring the church to the table!” This has made a huge difference.
The journey of sharing the gospel of the Kingdom of God is a journey with everybody as we do the common good together. There is an opportunity to preach the gospel through relationship. I get to see behind the scenes as many come to know Christ through what we are doing in the community and schools.
Tell us one of those stories of people being changed by engaging with the community.
One story I can think of is a man who had just gone through a very difficult divorce. He was a single dad with a two year old. He was trying to find a place to live and a job. He ended up working for a school district close by our church, Pure Heart. He was in a very painful place in his life. His boss at the school district, who is not a Christian, heard him say he was really struggling. She said, “You know that Pure Heart church just does this stuff for us all the time and I bet they would help you if you went.”
He came to Pure Heart and I remember, he was sitting in the back row. Our lead pastor was giving a sermon and on that day he was sharing about a very painful divorce that he went through in his life. The man visiting was able to relate and he told us, “I have found a place for people to love me and allow me to be in the place I am.” He is still a member and very involved at Pure Heart. He serves here now all because his boss said: “You should check out that church because they do stuff for us!”
What has you fired up right now within School Connect?
Something we have not talked a lot about in a public way is trauma-informed care. We know this is something Arizona is facing, along with other city movement leaders in other states. There is recognition that our kids are coming with trauma in their backgrounds. They are coming from experiences that are impacting the way they succeed in school. Schools are telling us: “We need training in trauma. We need this training to support our kids, and also for our parents, teachers, and principals.”
We have great partners in the state of Arizona. The Governor has said: “We want a trauma-informed state.” The government just hosted a conference for trauma care. Grand Canyon University has hosted a training as well and churches came together to learn too.
One thing to contribute to conversation is starting Chaplains for Schools. This idea came from listening to a superintendent from a very large school district–32 schools with 30 social workers. The superintendent said they cannot keep up with the trauma, so I wondered “Why don’t we have chaplains for schools?”
I ran the idea by a social worker who works in schools and she informed me that they have a crisis response team on the school district side, but they don’t have someone that would continue walking with people afterwards. Whether it be visiting them in hospitals, making sure they get food and housing, or whatever they need. We have begun a program with churches who already have chaplain programs. They get trained through the church, but then they go through training with school districts and they start walking alongside parents, teachers, and students.
Our first call when we started was for a 12-year old who had taken his life. The social worker asked if we could bring our chaplains in to meet with the teachers. It just so happened that the mother of that 12-year old boy was a teacher at another school where I knew the principle. That principal was with the mom at the hospital and that principal also has a 12-year old son. Do you see this circle of ministry that is possible and needed by the body of Christ? We are just in the early stages, but it is such a natural fit for the body of Christ to step into partnerships and community.
Reach out to Tracey Beal directly here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or learn more on the School Connect website here: www.schoolconnectaz.org