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.”
In honor of the “196th Session of the Philadelphia Annual Conference: Reach, Reclaim, Engage, Empower,” various African Methodist Episcopal churches gathered for the common cause to connect and inspire through empowering worship experiences.
With a lot of preparation and support from surrounding AME churches, the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in South Philadelphia hosted the conference this year.
“We partnered with people in the community and we worked with other churches,” said first lady of Mother Bethel Leslie Tyler. “We really worked our AME network; that’s where AME comes in handy because you never really do things by yourself — we just thank God we are not by ourselves.”
Mother Bethel worked with other churches to provide adequate parking space for guests and to supply the use of vans. In addition, they partnered with Ms. Tootsie’s Soul Food Café, to provide catering and to have guests eat at the restaurant.
The conference kicked off with a “Women in Ministry” event last Sunday, followed by the “Evangelism” event on Monday and a “missionaries” event on Tuesday where people gathered from New York, D.C. and other surrounding cities.
“We elected a new president, Connie Smith; … Florence Smith was the outstanding president,” Tyler said.
Wednesday was the official opening ceremony at Mother Bethel and Rev. Ronald Sparks from Monumental AME Church delivered the annual sermon.
“The turnout has exceeded expectations and the opening service was spirit filled,” Tyler said. “It was a very inspirational message that captured the frustrations and hopes of his peers and all of those gathered — it kind of sets the tone for the annual conference.”
The Rev. Edward M. Bailey from Lancaster and the Rev. Paul J. Thomas of Union AME Church located at 1614 Jefferson St., were enthused to participate in the annual conference and to attend the lay organization event held Thursday night at Mother Bethel.
The AME Church lay organization is a group consisting of members and community leaders, who inspire the youth, encourage financial support of the Church’s programs and share a common appreciation for the history and principles of African Methodism.
“It is also the night that we raise money for our colleges that belong to the AME Church,” Bailey said. “Each church will come together and give a donation towards a college fund for the African Methodist church.”
Thomas believes this conference is much needed in our community.
These conferences are important because it helps members know what the churches are doing and where they stand,” he said.
Following the lay organization event, Friday’s events were dedicated to Christian education along with Saturday, which was dedicated to the Young People’s Division (YPD). Former Gov. Ed Rendell stopped by the conference on Friday.
Sunday’s closing ceremonies located at First Episcopal District headquarters at
3801 Market St. consisted of the reading of resolutions, closing worships and the appointment of churches.
“Each year pastors are assigned to their church,” Tyler said. “Bishop Richard Franklin Norris appoints the pastor to a church.”
The conference is also an opportunity for vendors from all over to sell merchandise in what Mother Bethel names the “Blacksmith shop.”
The conference was an opportunity for people to reconnect, network and worship together.
“When you are working out there so often you think you’re all by yourself, it’s good to come and be reaffirmed that what you’re doing is what God called us to do,” Bailey said.