School, church partner on $200K award


This summer, Rydell Payne—executive director of Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries—approached Johnson Elementary Principal Vernon Bock with a proposal. For almost three years, Abundant Life had been working out of their office on Grove Street and in the Blue Ridge Commons area with Johnson’s most needy students as part of an after school program. Twice a week, between 30 and 45 kids would spend a two-and-a-half-hour block—from the time they got out of school until their parents could get off work—receiving tutoring as well as other services. Now, Abundant Life was losing its old space and had an idea. Why not just operate right out of the school? Secondly, why not get the state to pay for it?

Rydell Payne, executive director of Abundant Life Ministries, says that after school programs with Johnson Elementary have "little to no religious activity."

"He said, ‘I see an opportunity for a grant,’" Bock says, "and we put our heads together." A few months later, the comingling of brain power has resulted in a hefty $200,000 grant from the state Department of Education to fund a 21st Century Community Center on the grounds of Johnson.

"The grant will be targeted to providing intervention and remediation to students that are below grade level," says Bock. A component will also be "enrichment," which Bock explains as "enhancing the curriculum."

"Research shows that students coming from low socioeconomics are lacking background experiences and exposure," he says. "We want to increase students’ exposure not only to the content but the world at large [through field trips], which will equate to an increased academic achievement."

According to Payne, Abundant Life currently spends $60,000 aiding the students. The new grant will allow them to more than double the program to approximately 100 kids, as well as provide transportation home.

Abundant Life is a partnership among the residents of the Prospect Avenue neighborhood, local churches and Trinity Presbyterian, its founding church partner. Although the group is religious in nature, both Bock and Payne dismiss any concerns about the separation of church and state.

"This particular program has little to no religious activity," says Payne. Before the day’s program starts, students are led in a generic prayer, reciting, "God, grant us wisdom and open our hearts to learn." In addition, parents, students and teachers are given the chance to opt out.

"We’re not espousing religion as part of the program," Bock says. "We have to make sure that separation exists, and part of my role is to ensure that’s the case."

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