During his 20 years as a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Ed McKinney has served five churches in North Carolina, and all but one have been in rural parts of the state. It’s in those small, close knit communities where Pastor McKinney thrives.
He loves the challenge of dissolving barriers – of helping congregations recognize their many gifts and discover powerful ways to use them. Rural communities face daunting social and economic challenges, but he believes their churches have the resources to promote change.
“We can be better together,” he says.
He and his young family now live outside Thomasville, N.C., in a home just steps away from the red bricks of Fairview United Methodist Church. The congregation isn’t large – 90 people fill the pews on Sunday mornings – but Pastor McKinney encourages them to think big in the ways they serve. They stock a food pantry for seniors; support a nutrition program for children at risk of going hungry over the weekends; provide snacks for anxious visitors in hospital waiting rooms.
This summer, with a $36,000 grant from The Duke Endowment, the congregation is hosting a six-week literacy camp, providing space, meals and volunteers.
“Fairview has been an important part of this area for nearly 100 years,” he says. “Keeping those strong ties alive will help us play a meaningful role for generations to come.”
He practices what he preaches. At least twice a week, he volunteers at nearby Pilot Elementary, a Title 1 school with a high percentage of children from low-income families. He helps in his children’s classrooms or spends time with his reading buddy in the media center. He’s active with the Parent Teacher Organization, and his wife serves as the group’s secretary.
The Rev. McKinney has seen unlikely partnerships flourish through connections such as these.
“My passion is to help small congregations develop their capacity for impact,” he says. “That’s the legacy I hope to have at every church I serve.”
Learn More about Summer Literacy Programs
Through its Rural Church program area, The Duke Endowment has funded summer literacy programs at two churches since 2013. Designed to help rural congregations improve literacy among elementary school students in their communities, the multi-faceted programs have been held at Monticello United Methodist Church in Iredell County and Seaside United Methodist Church in Brunswick County. Fairview United Methodist Church in Thomasville will become the third site in 2018.
The Endowment’s summer literacy programs use an evidence-informed approach intended to maximize students' reading growth during the academic recess. The churches each recruit 24-36 students in need of literacy intervention for the six-week academy. They use data-driven instruction by highly-qualified teachers, and host weekly workshops to engage families in their children's education.
Together, these strategies are intended to help churches play an effective role in the community and to narrow the literacy gap between summer literacy participants and their higher performing peers.
Seeing a promising model in the programs, the Endowment hired Helen Chen with the Harvard Graduate School of Education to begin an evaluation process. During the summer of 2016, Dr. Chen studied the effectiveness of the programs, with an eye toward later replication and scaling. She concluded that promise was evident, with strong reading gains for students and documented benefits to families and congregations. She also recommended that a principles-based implementation evaluation be conducted in 2017 to ensure that a common testable and replicable model was at work in both sites.
The Endowment worked with Dr. Chen and the congregations to create guiding principles to govern the literacy programs, and then to design an evaluation based on the principles. The six principles are:
- Thriving and engaged church community
- Strong community investment
- Wrap-around services
- Empowered and effective teachers
- Data-informed and student-focused instruction
- Family engagement
Through the 2017 evaluation, Dr. Chen concluded that the principles were an appropriate framework for the summer literacy programs, but that the churches needed to adjust some of their practices to fully activate them.
The modifications will help solidify a model for best practices in church-based summer literacy interventions in rural places and set the stage for further implementation and impact evaluations.
The Endowment has created a work plan for continuing the evaluation process, with an eye toward conducting a randomized control trial by 2021 and potentially replicating and scaling the model to help struggling readers in rural areas across the state.
Kristen R. Richardson-Frick