Recent data suggest that African American and Hispanic males are the primary victims of the nation’s dropout crises. According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, only 41% of Black males graduate from high school in the United States, and the Urban Institute reports that only 51% percent of Black females graduate.
During recent trips to LA, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, NY, and Atlanta, conversations with education professionals have centered on how can we best intervene to keep minority students in school. Strategies often include developing community partnerships and organizing programs utilizing proven dropout prevention methods.
In most cases the faith community is absent from the discussion. Typically when I ask why this is the case, the answer is simple: “We aren’t sure of what they can do. We know they have a role to play but it’s difficult to define.” Or, “We always invite the faith community but rarely do they show up.”
What’s tragic about these responses is the fact that the faith community is often viewed by people as the one place they feel actually cares about their well-being. When the faith community is absent, it sends a message to the community that “we only care about our own.”
But even just caring about “our own” is flawed logic and a poor excuse. Churches and other communities of faith in cities where the dropout rate is 50 percent or higher must recognize that students in our congregations are not exempt from this crisis.
Statistics show that 7,000 students drop out of school every day. Some of these students and families attend church on Sunday morning. It is very likely that on Sunday morning—as pastors preach about the power of God to change lives, being gifted to do great things, or being created for a great purpose—the message falls on the ears of students who have given up on their education or parents who are ashamed to admit their child has dropped out of school.
A student can choose to walk down the aisle on Sunday morning, willing to give their life over to God and then Monday morning decide to walk out of schools because they have given up on their education.
For years churches have supported back-to-school drives by purchasing books, school uniforms, and going on college tours. But they have not been quantifying the outcomes of these efforts and their impact on student performance. They are important and needed contributions, but far more must be done if we are going to keep the students that attend churches in the classroom and off the streets.
So what is the solution? Well, it is multifaceted.
First, nonreligious institutions must treat communities of faith with the same level of respect they give other community partners. Churches are first about the business of making sure their members have a relationship with God; they are not grassroots organizations created solely for the purpose of community service. However, with proper preaching and teaching, members will be compelled to act on the behalf of others, for that is in part the gospel message. Successful community partnerships are based on relationship building—which means being willing to take an interest in understanding the church just as much as you want them to take an interest in supporting your organization.
Secondly, churches must take seriously the need for what we call “Graduation Ministries.” These are ministries designed to make sure that every student in the church is performing on grade level and is prepared to graduate on time. A Graduation Ministry makes the church a “no dropout zone.” Faith for Change has developed a toolkit for Graduation Ministries to guide congregations through building infrastructure and sustainability for a successful dropout prevention program.
The Graduation Ministry Toolkit trainings teach participants how to track student performance; how to find the graduation requirements and drop-out rates of each school represented in the church; and how to inform parents of pertinent facts like overall school attendance, standardized test performance, and the impact of education policy as a barrier or gateway to student performance. The trainings also teach ministry leaders how to support parents, document ministry activities, and quantify their results.
Our schools are not in crisis. Schools don’t have a pulse. Our students are in crisis. And our teachers, parents and caregivers are in need of help. As communities of faith, we are first about the work of making sure people draw closer to God. But what we do to help students stay in school will let young people know that God cares about their future.
“For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)