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Philadelphia's church-school experiment

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Paul Vallas has been spending Sunday mornings in the pulpit recently, but he's no preacher. As CEO of the 210,000- student School District of Philadelphia, he's been speaking at weekend services in houses of worship across Philadelphia, extolling the potential of the school-faith partnership, and asking congregants for help with everything from tutoring and mentoring to hallway patrols and discipline.

Vallas's goal is to have each of the district's 276 schools adopted by at least one nearby church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, which he expects will bring moral heft, human capital, and familiarity with the streets to the job of educating the city's children.

Embraced by such faith communities, Vallas believes, students will better navigate the often-volatile home and neighborhood environments that threaten learning and imperil character development.

"I want to give the faith-based institutions some latitude to sponsor gospel choirs, to set up prayer clubs, to participate in what state laws call faith-based released time [for religious instruction]," says Vallas. Although wide-ranging, as long as the activities are voluntary, not school-sponsored, and take place outside school hours, they are legal, he contends.

Philadelphia is hardly the only school system to ask its surrounding community for more support for its public schools.

"So much of what influences academic outcomes is what happens outside the schools," says Tom Hutton, staff attorney of the National School Boards Association. "Schools can't possibly do it alone."

As a result, they are seeking more input than ever from outside resources, including faith communities. But perhaps no other public school system has worked so directly to include religious groups.

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