The Common Good

How Can People of Faith Help Students Achieve Their Potential?

Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.

Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.

While those statistics seem overwhelming, we have thousands of examples of students, families, teachers, and schools that defy these odds every day. Children from all racial and economic backgrounds have God-given potential and are truly “made in [God’s] image and likeness.” If given the opportunities and support, they will achieve. Schools on the south side of Chicago — in neighborhoods where only 1 out of every 15 African-American men attend college — are sending 100 percent of their African-American graduates to college every year. In some of the nation’s poorest communities with extremely high recent immigrant populations, graduating seniors are accepted to the nation’s top colleges and universities.

It can be done, but we need more people of faith to help students fulfill their potential. What can we do? 

1.     Build Awareness — People of faith can be a faithful, moral voice to call out injustices in our nation’s public schools. The Expectations Project led our first-ever national campaign this September: Educational Equity Sunday. More than 500 congregations joined us in solidarity to pray for our nation’s public schools, teachers, students, and families. The clergy stood before their members and shared the vast educational inequities that many children in poor communities face – and they called their members to action. Next September we’d like to see thousands of congregations join us! 

2.     Take Meaningful Action — Christians are often known for meeting local, immediate needs. Thousands of churches have programs connecting to schools – whether it’s donating backpack supplies, hosting afterschool programs or teacher appreciation dinners. We believe that work is good, but we can amplify our impact by also turning our focus to programs that increase student’s educational outcomes. High quality tutoring programs, for example, can make a huge impact on student learning. Holistic church/school partnerships with an eye to education and classroom activities can help transform a school. Churches are well positioned to lead this charge.

3.     Advocate for Systemic Change — Individual actions are wonderful and necessary. But we need to tackle the root causes, the systemic issues in public education. What are the big-ticket items that will affect tens of thousands of children across an entire school district or state? What policies and changes can positively affect millions of public school children around the nation? We can push for high quality preschool education for all children in places like Indiana, one of the few remaining states that doesn’t provide funding for pre-K. We can speak out on policies that ensure teachers are trained and supported effectively.

There is much to be done to give all children the education they deserve. But it is possible. And it must be done now.

Nicole Baker Fulgham is Founding President, The Expectations Project and author of the recently releasedEducating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids (Brazos Press, April 2013).

This post was featured in Sojourners' monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

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