A Day in the Life of Two
Urban Lutheran Schools
Teaching about Jesus:
Unity Lutheran School
East St. Louis, Illinois
Unity opened in 2003 in the basement of Unity Lutheran Church in East St. Louis, Illinois. On the very first day, we had three students. After a few weeks, enrollment blossomed to 17 in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. We added a grade each year. Last year was the first time we had grade eight, and our first graduation ceremony took place on May 24, 2012, with 14 graduates. Last year, enrollment was 180; this year we have 190 students. By the time we had grade five, we had completely outgrown the church, so the Lord provided a vacant public school right across the street. After giving the building a major facelift, we now have a fantastic facility. We even have 20 unused classrooms!
Our full name is Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School. We chose “Unity” because we were first located in that church building. We include “Lutheran” because that’s who we are, and we’re proud of it! We included “Christian” for those people in our community who never heard of “Lutheran.” We use “Elementary School” to let people know what grades we offer.
Our mission is simple – to teach children in this community about Jesus. The school was opened by the Mission Board of the Southern Illinois District for that very purpose. Every decision about the school, including location, staff, funding, curriculum, athletics, and more, is filtered through that mission. Everyone who comes into our building knows that we’re all about Jesus.
East St. Louis has a national reputation for poverty, crime, and urban blight. It is unusual to ever hear something positive about East St. Louis. Even though the parents of our students are good people who care about their families and homes, there is still the mindset that nothing good can come from East St. Louis. If you hear it often enough, you will eventually believe it.
Overcoming that mentality is a major hurdle. Teaching our kids the value and reward for hard work is difficult, yet critical. Their behavior and politeness are exemplary. They are happy and caring. But we must convince our students that they can succeed and demonstrate what it takes to get ahead.
I teach one class — eighth-grade math. I always tell the students that they are as smart as any students I’ve ever taught, and they have a high aptitude for learning. However, their test scores are below students from other areas. The reason? Our students are not as faithful about homework as they should be. Get your homework done, and you’ll see positive results.
We have a few unique challenges at Unity. The issue of security is one we take very seriously. The teachers are trained to monitor situations throughout the school day. We all feel safe and secure, and we’ve had very few incidents over the years. We attribute that to a well-maintained facility and awareness on the part of parents and staff. We also pray regularly that God’s angels would watch over His children and our property.
Another potential challenge is the matter of race. Of our 190 students, all are African-American, except for one white student, the daughter of one of our teachers. We have been able to attract well-qualified staff, and 70 percent of them are African-American. That says a lot to the community. More importantly, we all spend significant time building positive relationships with parents. That’s the most critical factor in overcoming any stress caused by cultural differences.
Our greatest challenge (and opportunity!) is teaching our students about Christ. The best indicator of churched versus unchurched is on Monday morning when we take church attendance. Typically, in a class of 18 to 20, there are usually one or two who went to church or Sunday School. The rest did not. For most of our students, the only place they are learning God’s Word is in our school. That is why we’re here, and we take that very seriously!
When our mission school opened ten years ago, we knew that the most important decision would be how to teach children the Christian faith. Most of them come to us with absolutely no Bible knowledge. The method we use is unique and effective. Every morning, the entire school meets for what we call Belong To Jesus Time. Our principal, Rev. Dickerson, leads the meeting. It is structured and liturgically driven. Every week, the whole school is learning the same Bible story, the same memory work, the same catechism lesson, and the same hymn. We have prayer time and an offering every day. It’s a very powerful time, as the students learn and worship together with their teachers every day.
Many times, I have been humbled and awe-stricken to realize that some of the students are hearing the real Christmas story or the real Easter story for the very first time, and we have the privilege of delivering the message. What an amazing experience!
Since our school was opened by the Southern Illinois District, we automatically have 90 congregations involved with our school. We receive some subsidy from the District, currently five percent of our budget. Many congregations contribute directly to Unity through their mission budget, or through LWML, Sunday School, or other special projects. Congregations sponsor Unity Sundays, when our Unity Angelic Voices Choir sings during the worship service, Rev. Dickerson preaches, and I lead Bible class. This gives us a chance to tell about the miracle of Unity and recruit support from individuals.
We also have many, many congregation members from the area who volunteer on site in a variety of ways. We encourage people to visit Unity in order to get the full impact of our ministry. Many local pastors also lead our chapel services. We strongly encourage that type of involvement. Without it, we could not exist.
I am blessed by the level of support we receive from the parents of our students. Each one of them recognizes the life-changing opportunity being provided for their children. If their students were not enrolled in our school, they would have to go public, and none of the parents want that. The parents don’t always know how to help their children be good students, so we need to provide lots of parent support. But it is very rare that the parents take issue with the policies of the school or the way they are treated. There is a very high level of appreciation.
Also, the expression of faith in the African-American community is very open. The students love to sing praise songs with enthusiasm, and they recite the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed with conviction. For the parents who are Christian, they openly share their faith with our staff. It’s a blessing be in this Christian environment.
All communities throughout our country are facing difficult challenges. However, in the urban community, those challenges are more on the surface. Family dysfunction, poverty, drug use, violence, and such are much closer and actually accepted as the norm. I’m often amazed at the some of the things our students have witnessed. Their childhood innocence is taken away too soon through exposure to these elements. And the impact of these influences seems too great to overcome.
But we know, as Christians, that nothing is too difficult for God. In fact, as He solves more difficult situations, we recognize His presence and give Him the glory. I’m sure there were some who never thought that a Lutheran school could grow and prosper in East St. Louis. But most of what has happened at Unity can only be explained in one way – it’s because of Him. We continue to put our faith in the Triune God, and we follow His leading to teach His children about His Son – Jesus.
Paul Miller is Principal and Teacher at Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School, East St. Louis, Illinois.
Photos courtesy Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School, East St. Louis, Illinois.
Mt. Calvary Lutheran School
Living faith, showing love, and bringing hope! This encompasses the daily ministry in action at Mt. Calvary Lutheran School. Mt. Calvary is located in the central city of Milwaukee and has been serving children and families since 1925. Mt. Calvary is committed to providing a high-quality, Christ-centered education within a positive, caring, and safe environment. We embrace a holistic approach to ministry, supporting students in academic, emotional, and spiritual growth. As a result, Mt. Calvary provides special education as well as the services of a school social worker.
The majority of the 187 students enrolled at Mt. Calvary live in the community within a two-mile radius of the school. 95 percent of the 4K to eighth-grade student body is enrolled through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which was created to offer low-income families the opportunity to send their children to a private or parochial school. 90 percent of Mt. Calvary students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Approximately seven percent of students are Lutheran, 46 percent belong to other Christian churches, and 47 percent are under churched or have no faith background of any kind.
In addition to focusing on obtaining an education, many Mt. Calvary students must deal with the effects of family violence, substance abuse, incarcerated family members, and other experiences of trauma in their lives. For other children, basic needs of food, safety, and shelter are not consistently met. Students also frequently lack varied learning experiences that take place outside the school setting such as involvement in team or club activities or other enrichment activities.
Our school staff has many roles that reach beyond the teaching of general education subjects, including that of mentor, counselor, cheerleader, nurse, and tutor. Teachers and staff are wholeheartedly dedicated to the children in their classrooms. They care so deeply for students and are so committed to their success that, at times, students’ individual challenges and life experiences weigh heavily on the hearts of the staff. It can also be challenging to provide adequate support for students when they lack necessary resources to help them be most successful. Despite the challenges, teachers and staff are committed to empowering students to rise above daily life circumstances and fully maximize the talents with which God has blessed them.
The mission of Mt. Calvary Lutheran School is that we are dedicated to teaching God’s children through His Word to be Christ-like witnesses and productive members of society. Simply put, we are driven to be an engaged community of life long learners living the faith in the world.
“God-sightings,” demonstrations of God at work, are consistently evident at Mt. Calvary. It is especially heart-warming to see the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of students who have never heard even the most well-known Bible stories, including the Christmas and Easter stories. Students are frequently welcomed into God’s family through the waters of Holy Baptism. Another joy is when students apply their learning and make significant improvements – whether academically or behaviorally. It is also a blessing to be able to share resources and strategies with families in order to assist them in helping their children learn and grow. Among the most significant joys is the opportunity to receive feedback from students and families about how Mt. Calvary has positively impacted their lives. One Mt. Calvary parent says, “There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child. It is encouraging to know that my family has a group of educators that are concerned and care about all aspects of my children.”
The congregation views Mt. Calvary Lutheran School as a primary arm of outreach into the community. As a result, our school is blessed with many prayer warriors of the congregation – those who continually hold students, staff, and families in prayer. In addition, an Adopt-A-Class program is designed to intentionally build relationships between students and congregations members. Through this program, congregation members visit students, pray for them, bring treats, and attend school activities, and welcome them to church throughout the year. In turn, students are able to build relationships with their “special church friends” and, as a result, experience the love of Jesus in action. The congregation also facilitates a yearly community barbeque as a method to build relationships between church and school families. The most recent BBQ welcomed nearly 400 people!
Lutheran schools must continue to have a presence in urban settings! Our urban Lutheran schools plant seeds of the Gospel to many students and families who have yet to hear the Good News as well as many whose experiences leave them feeling hopeless. The message of urban Lutheran schools proclaims hope, eternal hope, for the future!
Carrie Miller serves as Principal at Mt. Calvary Lutheran School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photos courtesy Mt. Calvary Lutheran School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.