Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz should be commended for the work it is doing with the Hillsborough County School District. For years, the church has made a concerted effort to help students at one of Hillsborough's most troubled schools, and it is extending its reach to assist principals throughout the district. The separation of church and state should be recognized, but as long as churches such as Idlewild recognize the boundary lines, their secular efforts to help public school students should be encouraged.
The Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol reported this week that Idlewild, one of the bay area's megachurches, began a relationship with Just Elementary School in 2007. The church and its members have donated time and money to the struggling urban school, engaging in everything from mentoring programs to serving as homeroom parents to raising money for uniforms and planting trees. When superintendent Jeff Eakins took over the district this summer, Idlewild offered to help him achieve his goals of creating a vibrant school culture that includes mentoring, conflict resolution and student leadership. The church invited principals to a Sunday service and gave them T-shirts with Idlewild's logo, an act that civil libertarians and officials with other religious faiths reasonably argued crossed the line. Separately, Idlewild offered to host monthly principal training workshops featuring district-approved speakers, such as University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, on its sprawling 143-acre campus. Ultimately, the district decided to hold the training at a school, a smart move that respects the boundaries of church and district employees.
Partnerships between school districts and outside organizations are ripe for criticism because organizations or their members might take positions that are at odds with the district's responsibility to provide an education for children that is free from religious or political influence. But properly managed, those relationships can be fertile ground that benefits both students and volunteers. Under no circumstances should help from any organization come with strings attached that would compel students or district employees to align with a particular belief system or political agenda. That does not appear to be the case in this instance.
Idlewild and the district should set clear boundaries regarding the church's help, and no teachers or other school officials should feel pressured to join the church or participate in its religious activities. Some appropriate adjustments already have been made. Other organizations, including religious institutions of all faiths and nonprofits, should find ways to offer more support to public schools. In Pinellas County, for example, the five impoverished south St. Petersburg elementary schools highlighted in "Failure Factories," the Times' recent investigation, could use all the help they can get. Churches, as long as they recognize the boundaries, are prime candidates to help lead the way.