Christians in Education

[A significant discussion opened up on Voices over a very interesting article in Christianity Today, The New School Choice Agenda]

Dan Hendriksen wrote

They have a variation on that at our local public schools.  Instead of a separate school, they have advanced placement classes.  These classes are filled, disproportionately, with the children of well educated white liberals and well educated Asians.  The whites can say they are “supporting” their local public schools and sending their children to racially diverse classrooms in racially diverse schools, while at the same time their kids are somewhat protected from the gangs and violence that exist in the school.

The two-tier relationship Dan describes is pretty common in urban settings generally. But that hides what these “opt-ins” bring to the table — and so, why evangelical and reformed Christians might want to take another look at the local school.

the best answer is that Christians can bring a more whole-orbed, more Kuyperian view to the city schools — a view that is difficult for school administrations to act on. After all, the difficulties in the urban setting are not simply those of “bad” schools, but of lack of social capital, lack of social support for providers, lack of housing (so students often keep moving), lack clothing, lack of healthcare. A Christian community tucked in alongside a school can have a big impact in all these areas.

The gift that Christians first  give the local school is not their children, but their presence as neighbors. In the city school many of the students will have difficulty visualizing just what lies outside the school walls — it is a sense of possibilities for one’s own life, one’s possible family, and for oneself. The presence f other adults in the neighborhood who care about the school, its students; who share their social capital with the school community: this alone can be a life changer. For the staff, having a community that supports likewise helps them to be more focused, too. Teaching can be an isolating, even alienating activity. The outside adult can be a source of encouragement, and just as important, a witness. We all want to know our work matters; the volunteer can affirm that.

A second obvious gift, is that of the social network that is needed. The missional Christian community — these move-ins — also bring with them networks for housing, clothing, basic supply. In GR that has meant a lot of work with Habitat, and ICCF. The basic work of stabilizing neighborhoods can be transformative for the schools as well.

Third, the social gifts of the community can take concrete shape in helping with extracurricular activities. Low resourced schools, or socio-economically challenged schools have little access to after school activities. This engagement runs the gamut from the basic tutoring, to enrichment activities such as a school drama club, or science club, or even leading something like Odyssey of the Mind. Of course, some of this takes time — and sacrifice.

Fourth, there are the children. Yours. From the outside, city schools are often seen through a sort of dystopic view of all gangs and dysfunction, etc. (or alien worldviews — I suffered from some of this early on; later at City, there was one parent who pulled their child out of the Greek mythology section of English because they were talking about alien gods). Schools in the city are more diverse; quality varies by building, even by classroom. thus one can find teachers, classrooms and buildings that are educationally healthy. Nonetheless, parents often end up in other opt-in programs such as Charters or specialty schools. In Grand Rapids, the specialty school of choice for many is the Montessori.

Faced with the challenge of some city schools, evangelical-Reformed Christian have often responded with a separate Christian school. the difficulty with this response, is that it is not scalable, nor do its lessons readily transfer. Even success in a very urban environment will be small. For instance, we have a school like Potters House or Living Stones, but both are really quite small compared to the roughly 10,000 elementary students in GRPS. The better approach then for faith and educational reform is to opt for some sort of charter school arrangement that allows for healthier schools to grow in the community. Charters may be outside the district structure or on occasion within it. The charter begins to solve some of the need for a better educational environment in the midst of a very urban setting. N.b. that roughly half of all of the school age children in Detroit are in charter schools.

With the original article, I think that any faith community that takes seriously the city will also have to wrestle withe the questions of education and of the duty we owe our neighbors.

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