Leslie Tyler was looking for a sign from a higher authority.
As first lady of Mother Bethel AME Church, it was her job to determine which neighborhood school the oldest, continuously owned African-American church in the country would adopt.
There were McCall and Meredith, two schools in the changing Queen Village neighborhood that could use a hand — but schools that also have resources and solid reputations.
And then there was Nebinger Elementary, in the shadow of public housing, where 98 percent of the student body comes from homes that meet the federal guidelines for low income; and where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Looking at a map, Tyler noticed that the schools — with Meredith and MaCall on one side and Nebinger on the other — were separated by Christian Street.
And the woman of God got her answer.
“I felt at ease,” Tyler, wife of Senior Pastor Mark Tyler. “People kept saying, ‘You don’t want to go to Nebinger.’ How could we, as Christians, not notice that irony? I should have known all along that this was the place for us.”
Over the summer, Tyler reached out to Nebinger principal Dr. Ralph Burnley Jr. In just his second year at the school, Burnley, who previously served as the South Region Superintendent for eight years, has made it a point to get as many outside agencies as possible working with the school.
He has developed a relationship with the Queen Village Town Watch and the Bella Vista neighborhood group. They are loosely aligned as Friends of Nebinger. As a group, which also includes Mother Bethel, they have committed to donating $10,000 to the school by the end of the school year.
“It was a no-brainer,” Burnley said of allowing Mother Bethel to adopt the school. “They were talking about buying backpacks, notebooks, pens and paper for the children. How do you say no to that? In this era, with the budget cuts that the schools are suffering from, you can’t.”
Tyler said that the 260 backpacks purchased for Nebinger were paid for by the 18 different AME churches in the city. Tyler is the president of the ministers’ wives group. It was after the donations were given that Tyler approached Burnley about adopting the school.
Mother Bethel, along with buying supplies, has begun a plan that will place Nebinger students with at least 25 adult mentors. Mother Bethel has a museum that features the church’s rich history. The museum’s curator will teach the students in the eighth grade about the church’s historic role. They will have ongoing enrichment programs involving Nebinger.
“It’s become apparent to Mother Bethel that our role is not just financial; it’s also about human resources,” Tyler said. “Our job is to stand in the gap. That’s what we are going to do.”
Burnley’s leadership at the school is one of the things that attracted the church. Before he arrived last summer, the school had been chugging along, achieving its goals of making adequate yearly progress, but Burnley noticed that the test scores had stalled.
In 2009 and 2010, standardized test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment at Nebinger became stagnant. In reading, during those years, 58.3 and 57.8 percent of the student body scored proficient or advanced. During that same time, the math scores were 66.2 percent and 68.1 percent, respectively. In 2011, Nebinger bumped those numbers to 71.8 percent and 82.0, respectively.
The percentage of students scoring below basic at Nebinger also dropped precipitously, tumbling 5.8 percent to 12.7 in reading in 2011. Math saw a 4.1 percentage drop to 7.8.
Asked if the improvements at Nebinger could be tied to cheating, something that has been speculated at other district schools, Burnley laughs.
“Tell them to look under my fingernails,” he says. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
When he was the regional superintendent, Burnley kept a close eye on Nebinger. He noticed that many of the students’ biggest area of weakness was reading comprehension. To that end, he plans on having the mentors focus heavily on comprehension.
“It sounds beautiful when students read, and they all can read,” says Burnley. “But the key is being able to have them tell you what it is that they have read after they have read it.”
While he is thrilled that the church has helped from the financial standpoint, it is the human manpower of the congregation that he looks most forward to utilizing. Burnley would like to see African-American athletes, entertainers, Greek organizations and others mirror the commitment of Mother Bethel.
“So many of these schools in the city could benefit from the investment,” Burnley said. “Hopefully others will see what is happening here and it will spread.”