How to build better schools

Randal Jelks pointed to an interesting article from the New York Times on New York’s elite schools, highlighting the terribly small admission of African Americans. 14. The number is shocking. As he notes, the problem is not simply there on Manhattan, but also here on the banks of the Grand. Do our magnet schools, specifically City, suffer from the same disease? Or more accurately, do they function as a distraction from the point. As he notes:

(The magnet schools have) never been about the intellectual development of Black and Brown children who now make over 69% of the school district. Now mind you need middle class parents of all stripes in the GRPS, but not at the expense of majority the population. Too much excuse making in my opinion and reinforcement of race and class segregation with white folk being the power brokers

Perhaps. This does seem to  to pit the middle class against the needs by race. This may miss the issues of class. As Jelks alludes to, numerous studies not that it is poverty, not race which correlates with achievement. Moreover, achievement for low income students rises when they have the chance to be economically integrated; middle class engagement by parents and stakeholders is critical for the overall health of the schools.

Add to these observations the conditions at hand in our city. Of the total school age population in the city, Grand Rapids Public Schools gets slightly more than half. The rest are found in charters, schools of choice transfers, and to a limited extent the parochial. Of the share of the students 72% qualify for student lunch. Note GRPS is ~ 31% white, the census school age population is roughly 35% white. So the question of uplift is less racial than economic in nature; a broader economic base gives more possibility for lifting up more students. Again, integration

And finally, there are graduation statistics released yesterday. GRPS has made decided gains in the past five years, particularly among its black and latino populations, and especially with the men. Further, the graduation rates for  Innovation Central High School and Grand Rapids University Prep are both in the 90+% range, and both have more than 80% minority enrollment. These schools succeed because of stakeholder engagement, and there is simply no question that we need more of that. In short, this is not the district of 10 years ago, or even five.

Listening to the Day of Silence

In Why Christians should support the Day of Silence, Neil de Koning starts the conversation

How should Christians respond to April 20’s Day of Silence, a student-led national event that brings attention to the bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in schools?

The focus on bullying is something of a distraction, at least in the high school where I coach. The kids who will participate will be the gays and kids from same-sex households, but also their straight friends. Day of Silence is less about bullying than about solidarity and standing with your friends. And that, I would think,  is where Christian reflection might best begin.

It starts with presence. After all, you really cannot do anything until you’re there with them, alongside them and in the halls. And if we aren’t already in the school (and many Reformed Christians are not) then any response on Day of Silence will be at arm’s length. It will seem contrived. Or worse there will be some sort of counter narrative, one that creates gaps rather than bridge them (e.g. Day of Dialogue from Focus on the Family)

And then there is hospitality. Day of Silence is an invitation to create a welcoming space. The t-shirt and duct tape will be an act of identity, a force of our gaze. As such it is clearly political (i.e. “some folks don’t like us; tough”), and also has that edge of dare: do you, will you accept me? For me, the question will be how do I accept this gift of self-identification?

I think what I will reflect on most will be how these are kids who are deeply, deeply loved.

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.