­­­­­­As a boy, John Marshall remembers his favorite Sunday school teacher reading Bible stories to the class—and then leading students to uncover their literary themes using plot and Venn diagrams.

“She was an English teacher, and she’d ask us, ‘What is the metaphorical meaning behind Jonah and the whale?’ ‘When were you in the belly of a whale?’ ‘Who are the Delilahs today?’” said Marshall, now the chief equity officer for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), in Louisville, Kentucky.

Marshall believes that approach helped him and his friends become better students and apply the Bible stories to everyday life.

Now he’s using it to change how churches do Vacation Bible School (VBS) by training teachers how to integrate Common Core standards into their Bible lessons.

Marshall’s efforts are part of the “15K Degrees Initiative,” a partnership of Louisville schools, churches, and other local groups aimed at helping more African-Americans in that city earn college degrees. Only 14 percent currently have degrees, according to organizers, compared to about 20 percent of African Americans nationwide.

One of Marshall’s main challenges is combatting the “summer slide.” Students from minority and low-income backgrounds have a greater risk of learning loss during the summer than their wealthier classmates. Researchers say it’s one of the biggest factors driving the achievement gap between the two groups.

Weaving Common Core strategies into VBS is one potential intervention.

This year, 25 VBS and Sunday school leaders from about 20 churches—mostly African American—were trained ...

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