The 5,000-square-foot addition under construction at Ninth Street Church of Christ here is for more than a growing congregation -- it's for public school pupils who need help.
The Rev. Mark Rowe is getting ready for an increase in the pupils from Paducah elementary schools who for two years have been going to his church on Wednesday nights for assistance with homework, a meal, and tutoring in math, English and writing.
Rowe's western Kentucky congregation is at the forefront of an effort by local churches and community organizations to help Paducah Independent Schools narrow the "achievement gap" between black and white students.
"I believe too much pressure has been put on the schools. I don't believe a school can solve a spiritual problem," Rowe said.
Too many students lack adult role models or parents who can give them the attention they need, he said. So the Wednesday sessions at his church include a class on social skills.
The school can do a better job "if you can get a kid's behavior changed for the better," Rowe said.
The achievement gap is a subject getting national attention because of the federal No Child Left Behind law. It requires schools to show annual improvement, not just overall but among specific groups of students: ethnic minorities, the poor and those with disabilities.
"Some of these gaps are frighteningly large," said Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the nation's report card") show black 12th-graders reading at the level of a white eighth-grader, Musick said.
"But this is not just about race. It's about income, about opportunity, about family. However you choose to cut it, it's a huge problem," Musick said.
"When you're facing this level of difficulty, schools alone can't get the job done. So a community effort -- I think that's what it comes down to. This has to be what a community does. Otherwise you get a one-year blip," he said.
A "Closing the Gap" campaign began in Paducah at a public meeting in which school officials laid out data showing a yawning divide between blacks, who account for half the district's 2,900 students, and whites.
"We opened it up and had a discussion, and some of it was painful," recalled Bill Cartwright, principal of Cooper-Whiteside Elementary School, which is predominantly black.
"There was a huge cry that came up, especially from our African American community, about what we were going to do about our African American males. We're losing them," Cartwright said.
It is an effort that relies heavily on tutoring and attention to the needs of individual students.
Students deemed to be potential dropouts get "personal development" plans. Teachers and school administrators pore over test data to spot students who fall behind, in what subjects, and adjust their instruction. Teachers receive training to understand poverty and different ethnic cultures.
School staffers hold monthly meetings with their "community partners" -- nine organizations, including churches, Paducah Housing Authority, Boys' and Girls' Clubs and the Salvation Army, all of which offer help with academics beyond the classroom.
Rowe's congregation collaborates with another, Broadway Church of Christ, which has a Monday night tutoring program that complements the Wednesday program at Ninth Street.
Rowe said a typical Wednesday night at his church would include about 30 pupils from the fourth and fifth grades at Cooper-Whiteside and the fifth grade at another majority-black school, McNabb Elementary.
Test data from the Kentucky Department of Education show that both schools, from 2001 to 2003, significantly reduced the percentage of students classified as "novice," the lowest of four performance categories, though gaps remain.
Examples: 56 percent of black fourth-graders and 78 percent of fifth-graders at Cooper-Whiteside scored as novices in reading and math, respectively, in 2001. Two years later, the figures were 29 percent and 58 percent. Among white students, 18 percent were novices in reading and 31 percent in math in 2003.
At McNabb, 12 percent of black fourth-grade readers were novices in 2003, down from 20 percent two years earlier. The school reported no novices among whites in 2003.
Eighteen percent of black fifth-graders were math novices in 2003, down from 59 percent in 2001. Among whites, 17 percent were math novices in 2003.
Rowe said the program at his church has since added fifth-graders from a third school, Clark Elementary. When the building addition is completed, there are plans to expand the program to second- and third-graders as well.
"Our goal," Rowe said, "is to have 75 to a hundred kids here on Wednesday nights."