While pursuing a master’s degree in Christian formation from North Park Theological Seminary, Kate Norten, a former teacher in Wauconda, developed the idea of creating school-church partnerships as part of an internship served at her local church.
Norten said her initial thought was to partner Lundahl Middle School with her own church, Hope Church of Crystal Lake. After meeting with Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 Superintendent Kathy Hinz, it was suggested she meet with the district’s social workers to determine what needs existed.
In February 2017, Norten met with Kristin Schmidt, assistant director of special education, and the district’s social workers. Upon doing so, Norten quickly learned that all schools had needs.
While some schools already had a church partnership through Kids Hope USA – a national, nonprofit organization that facilitates mentoring relationships with at-risk children through church-school partnerships – others did not. These schools expressed interest in finding a partner, so Norten quickly got to work matchmaking.
“Churches are aware that families have needs all the time, and that this can overwhelm the schools,” she said. “There’s no way the school can take care of all the needs that families may have.”
In March 2017, participating churches met collectively for the first time: Willow Creek Community Church, First United Methodist Church, First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake, Bethany Lutheran Church, Living Waters Lutheran Church, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Crosspoint Lutheran Church, Harvest Bible Chapel, Evangelical Free Church, St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church and Hope Church.
Norten said collaboration was key.
“Before, some of the churches stated they felt like islands,” she said. “Now we have this community and strengthened partnerships. If there’s a need at a school that one church can’t meet on its own, others can step in to help.”
Local churches help the District 47 community in a variety of ways, including providing food for families and conducting clothing, coat and school supply drives. They also support staff by occasionally providing appreciation lunches or breakfasts.
At Coventry Elementary School, for example, First United Methodist Church provides families in need 50 bags of food each month, money vouchers for eyeglasses and Walmart gift cards for miscellaneous needs.
Additionally, the church has made it possible for Coventry to separate the clothing needs from a holiday assistance program, enabling the church and school to host a clothing drive in the fall so the holiday assistance primarily can be for gifts and toys.
First United Methodist Church also provides volunteer mentors to the school through the Kids Hope program, which serves 20 Coventry students, and a school appreciation luncheon for staff.
“We are grateful to be partnered with the First United Methodist Church of Crystal Lake, as we’ve been able to meet all of our Coventry family needs with their support,” Coventry social worker Melissa Karapanos said. “The church has made a significant impact on our Coventry community.”
North Elementary School has partnered with neighboring St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
Principal Christina Moran said this partnership also has positively affected students and families.
“Working together to support students through a mentoring program, volunteer opportunities, school supply donations and family outreach is remarkable,” Moran said. “St. Paul’s has provided quick and responsive support to our families during their times of need, which has helped us meet the social-emotional and academic needs of our students.”
Norten said the overall mission for the partnership is to help meet the needs of Crystal Lake families.
“Whatever the schools need, that’s what we’re there for,” she said.
The group of churches now meets four times a year and sends out surveys annually to District 47 social workers to evaluate the partnerships. In addition, they maintain contact with Schmidt at the district office to find out if there’s a bigger need they can help with.
“In previous years, churches and schools functioned in silos when it came to supporting families,” Schmidt said. “The church-school partnership program allows schools and churches to work together with a shared vision of supporting the community. The process also streamlines how social workers can access support.”
She said the partnerships continue to evolve in amazing ways.
“We are so thankful to Kate for her innovative idea, and look forward to developing these partnerships for years to come,” Schmidt said.
After getting feedback the first year, Norten said, she was surprised by the enthusiastic support from District 47 social workers who said they’d like more contact with the churches.
“To hear that, I was blown away,” Norten said. “This was confirmation that we were meeting a real need. I am grateful to all the participating churches and for the impact they’re making on the school community. Whether it’s a one-time need or an ongoing effort, it’s been great to see.”