Learning Begins with Love: Church Partners with a University to Create a Charter School
By: Roy Maynard
For many years one United Methodist Church in Spring, Texas did not know how to connect with their community. Then they developed a strategy that began to pay off, which led them partnering with a large University to start a charter school.
For Pastor Luis of Cypress Trails UMC, the church’s charter school is another way to connect with families in an economically distressed area of Spring, Texas. And as families become more connected, the community becomes stronger, he says.
“For many years, Cypress Trails UMC did not know how to connect with the community around it,” says the Rev. Luis Ramirez, known by all as Pastor Luis. “What we learned over time is that to really engage a family, they have to be engaged in the church in more than one ministry. So we have preschools, we have after-school care, we have soccer leagues, we have scouting, we have Children for Christ. When you have more than one point of contact with a family, they’re more comfortable and more likely to claim us as their church home.”
And that strategy has paid off.
“On any given Sunday, particularly during our 9:30 a.m. Family First service, you’re going to see a sanctuary packed full of kids and families,” he said.
Sam Houston State University began looking for hosts for innovative charter schools in 2016, seeking successful, established child care centers that could be expanded. Pastor Luis, who was already looking for a way to expand his church’s outreach into the community, felt it was a good match.
The school is now in its second year. Sam Houston State provides help with curriculum, with a focus on project-based and inquiry-based learning. The university also helps provide student teachers, and eventually, graduates steeped in the charter’s best practices and philosophy.
The school is an open-enrollment public school; its curriculum does not have a religious focus, though the independent after-school programs are Christ-centered.
“The school is progressing very well,” Luis said. “We’ve added a third grade, and now we’re adding a fourth grade. The partnership with Sam Houston State, in particular, is going very well.”
Pre-enrollment for the 2019-2020 academic year has begun, and some classes are already at capacity.
“Parents seem very pleased with what we have here,” he said. “What we offer, over and above the regular public schools, is individual attention.”
The average traditional public elementary school has between 500 and 750 students, he noted.
“When you have that many kids in one campus, regardless of how wonderful kids are and how wonderful the teachers are, it’s not as manageable,” Luis said. “We cap our classrooms at 20 kids. We always have a certified teacher in the classroom, but on top of that have teacher’s aids, student teachers, paraprofessionals and other professionals. The level of attention the kids get is astronomically higher than what they might get in the regular ISD. That means closer relationships with the students, so we’re able to see results in a shorter amount of time.”
And Pastor Luis has learned that the school and church must make the most of their time, because many in the community are transient or at least in transition.
“We’ve learned that it’s more than your enrollment at the start of the school year,” he explained. “Our enrollment in the second year suffered because we didn’t have a pathway for families to come into our school in the middle of the year, when another families has moved and created a vacancy. It was something of a learning curve, but now we’ve addressed that.”
Pastor Luis has found that teachers want to work at Cypress Trails UMC.
“These are teachers working with smaller classrooms, in smaller learning communities, and with more creative teaching—that’s the draw,” he said. “At the same time, they take a pay cut from if they were to work for a regular ISD. So it’s not for everyone. But going into our third year, the word is getting out.”
For Pastor Luis, being busy is the best kind of problem to have.
“Sure, it forces me to be intentional and methodical,” he said. “I have to think about how I use my time and how to be a pastor to these families. But our biggest challenge now is creating enough space for our continued growth. And I’ll take that.”
Sam Houston University continues to expand its network of charter schools. Churches interested in hosting a school should contact Dr. Ronny Knox at firstname.lastname@example.org