Tutoring Program Connects Suburban Church & Trenton School
This January, the Trenton Board of Education approved a project that is poised to transform two communities, one urban and poor, the other suburban and affluent.
Rev. Adefunmilola Akiwowo-Lola for short-proposed that the West Windsor church where she serves as assistant pastor run a Saturday-morning tutoring program in a failing public school less than 20 minutes away in Trenton. With reading and math scores persistently below grade level, the school is a candidate for privatization.
Lola Akiwowo is a doctoral candidate in the Metro-Urban Ministry Program
of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The tutoring program is her dissertation project.
"I'm very excited about Lola's project in Trenton," says her advisor, Associate Professor and Sage Library Director Christopher Brennan. "It has the potential to branch out and change many lives." The doctoral program provides the structure to strengthen Akiwowo's work and make it available for use by others in urban ministry settings.
In the NBTS program, a candidate's primary focus is her ministry or mission. Lola, who's soon to retire from Essex County Community College, where the graduation rate is less than 5%, sees her mission in education. "From the time I first came to this country from Nigeria 37 years ago, I wanted to know, why are there so many poor people here?" asks Lola. "Now that I've spent my career at an urban community college with such a low graduation rate, I am working to understand where the root of this problem is. Everything points to it tracing back to elementary schools. That is where poor students start losing traction."
A 2003 M.Div. graduate of the Seminary, she explains why she pursues the D.Min. degree. "I see churches spend a lot of time doing community service. But I want to challenge the status quo," she says. "I want to create a program that has measurable results, so we can experiment with what works and find out what doesn't. The D.Min. program will help me create a reproducible model." The NBTS program is unique because it marries a traditional theological educational framework with an urban planning focus to prepare D. Min. candidates to become more active and successful in community-building efforts.
When Lola became assistant pastor at the NextGen
church, she said Dr. Warren Dennis who directs the D.Min. program was excited but also voiced his concern. "He said to me, 'An African in a Korean church? I honestly don't know how it's going to work for you.'" Rev. Mia Chang, the lead Pastor of NextGen Church who hired Lola, is a second generation Asian American. She founded the NextGen church in 2009 as an American Baptist church for Asian families in West Windsor who are typically well-educated and professional. Four years later, the congregation has become more multi-ethnic, with 85-90 members.
"We are called to Christian service, to extend ourselves and open to the world," says Pastor Mia. "We started by doing the things all churches do, collecting for food pantries, collecting clothing. But we wondered, "How do we uplift people and change lives?"
They started a kids club on Fridays, an after-school program in their space, as part of their outreach. "Some people joined our church just because they got to know us through this program," explains Pastor Mia. "New Jersey is such a diverse area. But church is the only place where we can embrace our differences."
Students in the NBTS D.Min. program are required to create a convenant group-a team of people with expertise, experience and community connections, to advise them and support the project. Lola tried working with other churches but nothing took hold until she talked to her congregation at NextGen. Eight of its members stepped forward, each with public school system experience - counseling, teaching, and administration. West Windsor is not an urban community, yet there is a strong interest in offering the ministry project in an urban community. Ms. Sung Mee Lee, a member of the covenant group, teaches fifth grade at Grant Elementary in Trenton and introduced Lola to the principal, Mr. Alfonso Llano.
In their first meeting, Mr. Llano described the challenges facing students and teachers- low test scores, poor attendance, behavior problems. Lola sent him a proposal for a Saturday tutoring program, with the group's roles and responsibilities, hours of operation, and the number of volunteers. He told Lola that since she planned to hold the tutoring sessions in the school on Saturdays, she would have to submit her proposal to the Trenton Board of Education. Afterwards, Lola visited Ms. Lee's class. "I observed how Ms. Lee spent most of her time trying to capture the attention of her students and dealing with behavior problems." This cut into teaching time and she could see how poor performance would result.
Grant Elementary School has a student achievement level in the bottom five percent of all NJ schools and is required to show a 20 percent improvement in the next year or risk being privatized by the State of New Jersey. It's a school ready for change.
Since that day, Lola has used a vacation day every other week to spend the day volunteering at the school, learning more about the needs of the entire community. Before Christmas, it became clear that the families truly needed a shipment of toys. Lola and NextGen partnered with a local fire department which ran a community holiday toy drive for the school.
The Adopt-A-School program will provide tutoring in math, reading and computer skills. While not everyone will volunteer as a tutor, the whole congregation will play an active role. During last summer's Vacation Bible School, community members watched a slide show about the school, donated supplies for five classrooms and $25 gift certificates for teachers. In December, Principal Llano came to worship and spoke with NextGen about a whole host of needs: winter clothing, basic necessities, school supplies. Lola received a grant from the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey to help pay a stipend for certified teachers to work with the program. This spring they are hiring teachers and creating course outlines and collaborating with the staff to select the first 30 students.
The NextGen church continues to expand its connections with the school. "We want to prepare students to take standardized tests. We want to help parents help their kids excel in school. Then there are scholarships we'd like to offer," explains Lola as she demonstrates how a structured project like hers will transform two communities-urban and suburban.
"It's not just good service-we are becoming the people we sing about," explains Pastor Mia. "We sing, 'Oh how I love Jesus,' but how then do you show this love, how do we talk about the love of Christ to someone who is unloved? To love them is to fill their needs, to be the eyes and hands of Christ."