Dr. William Polite wants to see every child in Wichita be proficient in reading by the time he or she enters third grade. 

As director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for USD 259, he knows just how high a goal that is for many of the families in Wichita’s Black neighborhoods. 

That’s why he started the “Engaging Congregations” initiative as a way to get more adults involved in working with and encouraging children.

Polite started the work in 2019, but it was sharply curtailed as schools shut down, moved to remote learning programs and struggled to keep kids moving forward during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says the 2023-24 school year is on track for full-on effort. 

Participating churches will get regular feedback to let pastors, congregations and parents know what help their student needs. Based on that information, they can create a plan that will help their student succeed. Some are offering tutoring, others mentorship, and in-church recognition of varying degrees.  

He has about 35 churches currently involved with 15 to 17 that he describes as “quite active.” 

“Of course, I’d like to see more churches involved – ideally, every church – but we are off to a good start and I think the program will grow,” he said.

Keeping Score

Each church will get a scorecard every semester, showing them the average GPA of children in their congregation, the average number of suspensions, the average attendance record, and the average number of tardies.

The goal for Polite’s program is summed up as 95-0-3: a 95% attendance rate, 0 expulsions or suspensions, and 3.0 Grade Point Average.

“If you can keep a student on that track, he is going to graduate,” he said.

Polite says that so far this year, standardized test scores have shown USD 259 students to be short of meeting grade-level goals, but he blames the pandemic rather than teachers and students.

“I think we are going to see significant progress in the coming school year,” he said.

Once every two months, Polite holds a dinner meeting to invite pastors, church officials, and others working with the program to share their experiences and learn from each other about what is working for them.

“It’s just one way for churches to get information about the children in their congregations,” he said. “It may be hard for parents to ask for help, but if the pastor comes to them and says ‘we want to help’ then it makes a difference.”

So far, there hasn’t been enough feedback for ministers to do much more than commit to offering help when it is needed.

“We haven’t gotten much data back since this is only the first quarter,” said Pastor Earl Burkhalter at Stranger’s Rest Missionary Baptist Church. 

Burkhalter said churches have the resources to provide mentors and tutors for students as well as offering support to parents who may be struggling.

“I think we’re going to have to have a little more information and feedback before we know exactly what’s going to be needed,” he said.

A banner on the wall emphasizes the goals of the Engaging Congregations effort.

P.J. Griekspoor is a semi-retired veteran journalist with 55 years experience in writing and editing in Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wichita.  She spent 18 years at the Wichita Eagle...

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