School Without Walls: Program Created by 110-Year-Old Black Church Becomes ‘Lifesaver’ for Madison, WI Parents During Pandemic

Young girl studies on her laptop at School Without Walls. (Richard Jones Jr.)

“The work we’ve done in the community allows parents to feel comfortable sending their children to our church, even when they won’t send kids to school.”

The Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen, pastor Mt. Zion Baptist Church

The church’s prominent role in the city and the involvement of renowned University of Wisconsin-Madison-based education scholar Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings — also a longtime Mt. Zion congregant — helped School Without Walls attract a range of partners; the United Way, anonymous donors, and Dane County Human Services all contributed staff funding. Edgewood College, a local liberal arts school, supplied and paid for several undergraduates studying education to be classroom assistants. And the Madison Metropolitan School District provided meals, so the kids could have free breakfast, lunch and a snack every day.

Shaking kids ‘out of the screen’

School Without Walls’ robust community partnerships and financial support translates into an enviable staff-to-student ratio: eight tutors for a maximum of 30 students a day, ranging in age from pre-K through 5th grade. Since the start of the pandemic, the initiative has seen about 70 students come and go, Jones said. For some, it’s been a stepping stone in the journey back to school itself.

Nathaniel Whitehead shows off some of his School Without Walls artwork while his sister, Naqari, learns about the solar system. (Faleshuh Walker and Richard Jones Jr. )
Richard Jones Jr. helps third-grader Perla Hernandez with her math. (Richard Jones Jr.)

Looking for improvement, not perfection

Districts that want to start a program like School Without Walls should consider leadership one of three key ingredients, Allen, the pastor, said. While many churches have empty space most of the week, “You need a great leader in place that’s diligent, to make things happen,” he explained. The other key elements are funding and other kinds of support from community partners.

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The 74

The 74 is a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America.