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Friday
Jul182014

Christians and Education – learning from an American perspective.

When Nicole Baker Fulgham founder and president of The American Expectations Project, a non-profit organisation that seeks to close the academic achievement gap in public schools, met one of her fellow faith-based public school advocates for coffee, he recounted a conversation he had with a friend who is a long-time elementary school principal in the Bronx. Asked about his interaction with local churches, the principal said: 

“In my twenty years of working in the Bronx, the neighborhood churches have only reached out to me two times. One time they came to lobby for prayer in public schools. The other time they protested new science curriculum that included evolution. Twice they contact me in twenty years---and they wanted to talk about school prayer and evolution. But you know what? For twenty years I’ve had kids who cannot read or do basic maths. My students struggle to make it through school. We don’t have enough books, supplies, or resources for them. Our school building is literally crumbling around us. The kids have life-threatening, urgent needs. They’re hungry; they’re homeless. But in all these years, you’ve only criticized. You’ve never helped. Taking evolution out of my textbooks won’t change a thing for my kids. They’ll still be poor, uneducated, and stuck in the cycle of poverty. But not one church person has ever asked me about any of those things.” 

Ouch! 

Serve your Local School is focused on helping churches play a role in supporting their local schools. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Nicole, which provides helpful insights which can be applied in our own Scottish context.

Why is there a disparity between an historical investment in public education by Christians and the current state of things?

Nicole: Yes, it’s heartbreaking to think that many people in the country haven’t perceived Christians as concerned with one of our nation’s biggest injustices. The good news is that I deeply believe this tide is starting to turn. …… we see so many Christians being drawn to this work. Some of the disconnect is based on where some of us may live. If our own neighborhoods and schools are great, it’s easy to forget about those who aren’t as fortunate.

At this point, it’s worthwhile being reminded that in 1696 the Scottish Parliament passed its ‘Act for Setting Schools’, where every parish not already equipped with a school was required to establish a schoolhouse and to provide for a schoolmaster.

The Kirk had a central role in the supervision of such schools and in the appointment of the schoolmaster. From these early developments there grew a respect in Scotland for education and learning and from the 18th century onwards parish and burgh schools provided many Scots with a good standard of education leading to Scotland at the time having the highest standard of literacy of any European nation.

Can you share some examples of churches that have partnered with schools to cast a better vision for school achievement and equity?

Nicole: One of my favorite stories is a church in Southern California whose pastor became burdened with educational inequity. He and his staff did a little internet research to identify the lowest-performing school closest to their church. The pastor reached out to the principal and requested a meeting. In that initial meeting the church leadership simply said, “We are from a church about fifteen minutes from here, and we see that some of your students are struggling. How can we help?” The principal was taken aback, but mentioned that the school needed new computers so they could provide more robust instruction for students who were lagging behind. The pastor went back to his large congregation and raised an offering of about $50,000 for the school. Not surprisingly, the principal was blown away—and incredibly grateful. That, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The church held appreciation dinners for the teachers, and they began tutoring students and truly getting involved in the life of the school. Through their actions, this church demonstrated God’s love for the students, their families, and the teachers. And, in the midst of that, the students received additional support to improve their academic achievement.

In Scotland, we may not be part of a Church who could raise that sort of money, however the activities that they go on to undertake are certainly things that we can manage – and in fact many churches in Scotland are doing so. There are plenty more ideas on this website which can enable and inspire you. 

You suggest that some of the most effective models of closing the academic achievement gap are found at the school-based level. Can you share some examples?

Nicole: Sure—I love talking about what’s working in public schools! More and more public schools are defying the low expectations of kids in low-income communities. These schools have a lot in common: They’re setting high expectations for all students, and they don’t waver on that. They are incredibly resourceful about how to help students meet those standards. They’re extending the school day to give kids more opportunities to catch up on what they missed. They are finding social support services to meet the needs of families who are struggling with poverty. These schools typically have a phenomenal principal who establishes a welcoming, community-based culture for kids and families. And, not surprisingly, these types of schools tend to attract and retain some of the very best teachers. And, quite honestly, none of these ideas are revolutionary—but they do require very hard work from multiple stakeholders.

What would you say is the #1 thing that Christians who aren’t directly involved in education as teachers or administrators can do to help change the disparity and achievement gap within America’s public schools?

Nicole: This might surprise you, but I think Christians can have the biggest impact by becoming vocal champions of what’s possible. Our society desperately needs more advocates for public schools who deeply believe in the God-given potential of every single student. If we start proclaiming this belief over and over again in our communities—and then start putting our faith into action by becoming tutors, starting public school partnerships, and contacting our local, state, and national elected officials to demand change—then we’ll have a movement!

How do you respond to church leaders who are afraid of making education a priority within their congregations because they fear the public policy issues related to education are too political?

Nicole: I totally understand this hesitation. The current climate on public education reform is often caustic and divisive. At times, neither “side” of the debate shows a lot of generosity towards each other. But I’d suggest that’s exactly why Christians should get involved in these issues! Where politics, special interests, and discord abound, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s in the best interest of the people who have the tiniest voice: the children. We have a unique opportunity to make educational equity a moral issue. We can bring courage to the debate, along with the commitment to find common ground. I deeply believe that we will not get to the best outcome for children in poor communities without faith communities taking a stand.

Image credit: b3d_ on Flickr