TAMPA — One of the most influential Baptist ministers in Florida stepped to the front of an East Tampa auditorium on a recent Monday afternoon.
"This is not a Sunday school class and you will not be treated like a Sunday school class," said Ken Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church. "We have one purpose and we have one goal. To say thank you to you."
His audience: dozens of principals and assistant principals, fresh from their day running Hillsborough County public schools. Before he introduced speaker Jeff Ruby, who would lead a discussion on emotional intelligence and management, Whitten gave more disclaimers:
"We're not trying to make Idlewild members, we're not trying to get you to come to Idlewild. We understand who we are and we understand who you are."
A decidedly conservative church that draws as many as 6,000 weekly worshippers, Idlewood has organized these monthly events as part of a complex and evolving relationship with the district.
School officials call the church a "partner," though the term offends civil libertarians who favor a strict separation of church and state.
Complaints came when, on the first day of the school year, teachers arrived with spirit T-shirts, a gift from the church that bore the Idlewild logo and the word "partnership."
While accepting the shirt was voluntary — as is participation in the principal sessions — critics say staff might feel pressured, and that such moves test the boundaries of church involvement.
The principal sessions were going to be held in the church, which occupies 143 acres in suburban Lutz.
But shortly before the first one on Oct. 12, the district moved the location to the East Tampa adult school, saying it was more central — and that the change had nothing to do with questions about church influence.
The second event, featuring author and consultant Andy Andrews, took place Monday at Hillsborough High School.
Controversies about church involvement have cropped up for decades as U.S. presidents from both major parties have called on schools to join forces with "faith-based" organizations. Idlewild, in fact, is not the only church involved in Hillsborough schools.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins wants schools to benefit from outside resources and become better integrated into the communities around them.
But those relationships invariably carry the risk that someone will object to the organization or its values.
Idlewild leaders have spoken out against gay marriage. Prominent members have included Bill Bunkley, a conservative radio personality, and Randy Armstrong, who led a constitutional initiative against tax-funded abortions. Republican presidential hopefuls stump at Idlewild during campaign season.
"I'm not comfortable at all," said Susan Smith, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida who is skeptical when church leaders say they are not recruiting.
District leaders point out that Idlewild can help them meet children's sometimes pressing needs — needs that, in Smith's view, should be fully funded by the state.
Instead, Smith said, "we have to beg billionaires for money and we have to beg churches for money."
In the case of principal training, district leaders say Idlewild is in a position to help Eakins, now four months into the job, spread his student-centered vision among hundreds of administrators. They are not charging the district any money, and future speakers include University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and Tampa police Chief Eric Ward.
"It really is about sharing our goals as a district," said MaryLou Whaley, the district's director of parent and community involvement.
As for pitfalls, she said, "I think any partnership is a dance."
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Much of what Idlewild does in the schools — from planting trees to tutoring children — stems from the work of a former guidance counselor who is now a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
Lynette Henry used to work at Just Elementary, which borders the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex. When she arrived in 2007, she considered the challenges faced by her 550 students and thought, "There is no way I could do it on my own."
She looked around for help. She found a local judge. She reached out to the University of Tampa. Finally she asked Idlewild, her church: "Could you adopt the school?"
She researched federal initiatives on faith-based partnerships, which date back to the administration of George W. Bush.
She developed a three-pronged approach called "Just Love." Mentors would be paired with students. Groups of volunteers would adopt classes. And the church as a whole — including its children — would raise money for uniforms, incentive prizes and other supplies.
"I took the school district policy and I trained all the volunteers," Henry said. Teachers were also trained in the policy, which does not allow proselytizing behavior.
"We told the teachers, you don't have to have your classroom adopted," she said. "You don't have to feel badly if you say no."
The results were overwhelmingly positive, and Henry used them as material for a doctoral dissertation. Test scores at Just increased. Behavior improved. Kids appreciated not just the help with their studies, but the visitors' long-term commitment.
"I love how they help us and I love how they communicate with us and I love how they travel many miles for us," one fourth-grader wrote.
Parents responded positively as well, some becoming more involved in the school.
The work at Just continued after Henry left in 2013, with dozens of Idlewild volunteers still involved today.
Although their shirts say "Loving 'JUST' because Christ loved us," it's not a problem, according to missions pastor Barry Chesney, a mentor himself.
"When we're at the school," he said, "we understand the lane that we're in."
Early this year, as Eakins prepared to take over as superintendent, the district's relationship with Idlewild grew.
The church invited principals to worship there on a Sunday and interact with parishioners afterward. Eakins joined them.
Months later, as he articulated his eight core values for school culture — a list that includes mentoring, conflict resolution and student leadership — Idlewild offered to help with the transition.
As with any church or outside group, "we have trainings involved. We have screening involved," Whaley said. "We don't turn it over carte blanche."
But those assurances don't satisfy those who believe religious organizations should be kept out of the school system, or on a very short leash.
"It's obviously a conscious attempt by Idlewild to include its influence in what's going on," said Mike Pheneger, greater Tampa chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Regarding the teacher spirit shirts and the principal trainings, he asked, "Is it truly voluntary? The issue of social pressure is certainly there.
"And if the programs are truly secular and motivational and not overtly Christian, then why would the school district be organizing with the church for this kind of support?"
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Eakins contends that Idlewild — or any church — is no less deserving of a seat at the table than the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club, or other organizations.
"For me it's very simple," he said. "We partner with all those organizations because of what they ultimately want to do for the good of the kids. That's the bottom line.
"They see that if we don't get some of these supports in place for our kids, the communities that we serve are going to struggle indefinitely."
Like Whaley, Eakins described a multitude of safeguards and vetting steps the district uses with any entity, whether it is the corner store or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We have to be very, very careful that no one who receives anything feels that anything is going to be pushed on them at all," Eakins said. "Idlewild understands that."
He said he is not bothered that church leaders and members might view their volunteer work as a spiritual mission.
"My church feels the same way," he said. "My church says the mission field is not necessarily in Africa, it's in our back yards."
He added: "I think you would have many of our teachers who would say the same thing."
As for pressure on principals to take part in church-sponsored events, Eakins said there is none.
Justin Hutcherson, a Crestwood Elementary assistant principal, said he goes to the Monday sessions because "it keeps me fresh. It gives me a chance to grow professionally."
Yuri Higgins, an assistant principal at King High School said, "we would love for the churches in our community to get involved."
Andrews' presentation, which combined humor with observations about success and motivation, did not venture into any religious themes.
After that, Whitten dismissed the group. "God bless you," he said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.