By Whitney Stein
The partnership between First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte and Westerly Hills Academy is a strong one, one that the school principal describes as a flagship model of a successful school-community relationship.
You wouldn’t know it now, but there was a time when the two organizations knew little about one another. In 2000, the church staff reached out to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and expressed interest in being partnered with an area school, to provide tutoring services and whatever else the school might need that the congregation might be able to provide. CMS suggested Westerly Hills Academy, a Title 1 school with which the church had no prior connection. That suggestion sparked a partnership that has spanned 22 years and touched thousands of students’ lives.
“We were just looking for a way to support students, and help them thrive and take advantage of their potential, and just nurture the kids as they learn and grow, and do what we can to be a positive force in that experience,” said Heather Herring, the child and family partnership coordinator with First Presbyterian Church.
Tutoring is a big part of how the church supports students at Westerly Hills, through its partnerships with three local tutoring organizations: Augustine Literacy Project, Heart Math Tutoring, and Helps Education Fund. Herring promotes the three organizations to the congregation regularly, as well as the importance of and need for tutoring.
Lillie Cochran, a church member and longtime tutor, said the way the partnership is set up encourages connections to both communities, at the church and the school. She often runs into other church members when she’s at the school for her weekly tutoring sessions.
“Outreach is really where my heart is,” she said. “I get to foster that relationship with the church and with Westerly Hills through that.”
Herring echoed that, noting the church’s focus on one school has helped to create close bonds.
“I think that we feel a real connection to Westerly Hills,” she said. “We feel connected to the staff, we feel connected to the kids. It’s 22 years of spending time together. We walk on the campus and they’re happy to see us – the children are, but the staff and administration are, as well. It’s fun to see each other there, like Lillie said. It’s a real presence there, so I think by focusing your attention on one place and supporting it well, and supporting it consistently, that just makes it more powerful, and a more impactful experience.”
Westerly Hills Principal Kiesha Pride said building that connection took time and effort on both sides of the partnership, but that the commitment has been there since the beginning.
“They took the time to be in the building, to learn, to get to know the parents, to get to know the scholars. They know our staff members,” Pride said. “To have that level of commitment – you don’t always find that. But I truly think that’s part of what has built the sustainability with this partnership.”
While tutoring is a central part of the partnership, it’s far from the only component. The church also has two summer camp programs, a food pantry at Westerly Hills, and organizes a range of appreciation efforts for the school staff.
“It’s about wrapping around the family, the entire family, and truly being in the community, to serve the community,” Pride said. “That is truly what First Presbyterian does for the Westerly Hills community.”
Herring said the multifaceted approach also creates more opportunities for church members to get involved.
“I think the beauty of doing so many programs with Westerly Hills is that we have so many ways for people to plug in, and it fits different schedules, it fits different demographics,” Herring said. “There’s just a lot of ways you can support the school and feel part of that whole ministry.”
The church-hosted summer camp is BellXcel, a program for 75 rising Westerly Hills kindergarten through third-graders that incorporates academic instruction, enrichment activities, and field trips. Church members volunteer as tutors, lunch buddies, enrichment assistants, and field trip chaperones.
The church also partners with Camp Grier summer camp, providing the funding to send 60 Westerly Hills students to a week of summer camp in the North Carolina mountains. Church volunteers serve as camp connectors, providing a personal connection to participating campers and their families.
The year-round approach to the partnership helps build and maintain strong relationships, Cochran said. As a camp connector for Camp Grier, she’s seen students at summer camp light up when they run into their tutors from the school year.
“It’s really cool. You see children run up to other members of the church, and they were tutored by them all year,” she said.
The food pantry opened in 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has since served more than 400 families. Herring described feeling helpless at the onset of the pandemic, as many of the church’s efforts, like tutoring, were put on pause. The food pantry was created after the school administration suggested it would be a helpful resource. Herring said that’s typical of how the partnership works, and a big part of why it’s been successful.
“We let the administration guide us on how we can support them in their goals and their mission,” she said. “I think that’s why it works well, is because we really don’t come in and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ or, ‘Here’s what we think would be a good idea.’ That’s their job, and so we’re here to say, ‘What are you doing, and what can we do to support it?’”
Pride agreed, saying that approach is much appreciated by the school.
“It’s, ‘We’re here, we’re in the trenches with you,’” she said. “And to see that they are just as passionate about what happens at Westerly Hills as our staff is, is just mind-blowing.”
Herring and other church members meet monthly with Pride, the school social worker and guidance counselor, and other community partners to discuss the school’s needs. New priorities often evolve out of those meetings, Herring said.
“Our monthly meetings are huge in staying connected,” she said. “I always want us to be a support, and I want us to assist and not create more work for them. We always want to make their workload better. And so, streamlining that communication, meeting face-to-face, all the partners at one time, has worked really well.”
For the church, the best measure of the partnership’s success is defined by the school.
“We always want the school to achieve their goals,” Herring said. “So if they achieve their goals, I feel like we’ve been successful in supporting them, whether that be staff morale, retention, academic scores, parent engagement – whatever that may be.”
Westerly Hills saw academic progress last school year. Compared to 2021, the school went up in the percentage of third graders at Grade-Level Proficient by 10.3 percentage points, outpacing the district’s average gain of 3.7 percentage points. Westerly Hills also held its own on the more demanding College and Career Ready standard, increasing the percentage of third graders at College and Career Ready by 2.2 percentage points in a year in which 70 percent of schools experienced continued decline on this measure.
Pride said she would love for their story to help inspire other school-community partnerships. Looking to the future, she hopes to see the partnership with First Presbyterian continue just as it is.
“How do you go beyond what is already amazing?” she said.