Church helps out schools


When cold weather rolls around, Principal Louise DeJesu and the staff at Hilltop Elementary School usually think about winter coats as much they do about grades.

But this winter, teachers won't have to dip into their pockets to furnish the Glen Burnie school's many needy pupils with warm clothes. And DeJesu won't have to supplement their efforts by seeking donations from local businesses.

That's because Hilltop Elementary has a friend in nearby Heritage Community Church, which learned two years ago of the school's efforts on behalf of its students - 49 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals - and offered financial and other forms of assistance.

A second school, Harman Elementary, recently became a recipient of the Severn church's generosity. Heritage gave $2,000 to each school in September and truckloads of winter coats, gloves, shoes and food.

"They've been so supportive," said Sue Bachmann, Harman's principal. "Any needs we have, they always send someone right out."

School officials say community involvement in high-poverty schools creates better learning conditions for pupils.

"It helps to keep people's spirits up," Superintendent Eric J. Smith said. "It meets some of the basic needs, and as a result, there's more time to focus on the curriculum and the instructional program."

Such schools often have lower rates of parent voluntarism, which is important in finding mentors for children, raising funds for enrichment activities and easing teacher workloads.

At Jones Elementary School in Severna Park, for example, there is roughly one parent volunteer for every two pupils. Parents operate numerous before- and after-school enrichment classes, and the school recently won a National Blue Ribbon for academic excellence.

But at Harman, there are only about 20 regular parent volunteers for the school's 420 pupils. At Hilltop, which has 588 pupils, only six parents regularly volunteer. "Many of [the parents] are just trying to keep ahead in these hard economic times," DeJesu said.

That's why the work that Heritage is doing at the schools is so important, school officials say.

"When community members are willing to step forward and fill in, it's only good," said Georgiana Maszczenski, the school system's volunteer programs administrator.

Heritage's senior pastor said he first learned of the opportunity to help the schools from state Sen. James E. Degrange Sr. "We like to be able to let these kids know that they have a friend," said the Rev. Harold Bowman. "We feel like it's a good investment in our community."

In addition to the cash donation, which is intended to pay for field trip buses and emergency needs, the church also holds teacher appreciation breakfasts and sends tutors and guest readers to the schools.

But those things - while much appreciated by parents and school staff - aren't likely to make as big an impression on the children as a carnival the church recently held as an alternative to celebrating Halloween.

Hilltop's principal said she was grateful for the carnival, which she used as a reward for pupils who demonstrated good behavior.

"It's very comforting to know that when we reach out to people, they're willing to help," DeJesu said.

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