Education

'American Promise' Film Documents Two Black Families Navigating Education in America

American Promise spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African-American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn their cameras on their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, who make their way through one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, the documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class, and opportunity. American Promise is aOfficial Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Letters from a School Near MLK Street

Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Illustration of schoolchildren crossing the road, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

In my lifetime I’ve driven on three roadways named after Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a street, another a boulevard, and the third a highway. And whether by cosmic irony or human design, each of these roadways passes through communities of significant poverty and color, namely black. Around these roadways are boarded up storefronts, crack and heroin dens (think The Wire), condemned row houses, and inevitably, always – public schools.

From 2001 to 2006 I left the safety of the pulpit to teach in the schools of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pursuing a call to care for the proverbial least of these (it’s always pained me to think how I might feel to be called this, as in hey, you least of these, can I help you with anything? – but that’s a reflection for another time). I left also the safety of a suburban megachurch, where all you needed to do to understand the socioeconomic standing of its members was to walk through the parking lot, and the familiar cultural context of my Korean-American upbringing.

This article, however, is not about me. It’s about beautiful, creative, energetic, and intelligent children — kids who, as the least of these, are too often treated as such. There is no limit to blame: from the mother who comes to school drunk, a prostitute, publically shaming her son (who loves her nonetheless and gets beaten by the other boys defending her honor); to the worn-out teacher who drags a “difficult” child into the bathroom, bruising her arms and threatening her with verbal vitriol and rage; to the administration that promotes student after student, knowing they are years behind, but too old to remain; to the system that maintains, protects, and worships a biblical truism, that for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mt.25:29).

Education as an Exercise in Dominion

Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

I remember the first time I ever got straight A’s. It was also the last time.

I was in Mrs. Becker’s 4th grade class at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia. I was always good at reading, I LOVED science projects, and art class was fun — but math? Ugh. Math was my nemesis. In 4thgrade the times tables felt as insurmountable as that dang rope everybody else could whiz up and down in gym class. I just couldn’t figure it out. In fact, to this day, I haven’t figured the rope.

So, my father became my times tables drill sergeant and resorted to straight memorization tactics, making me write each one 10 times. Then he sat across from me at the dining room table and drilled me on the times tables until I said them in my sleep. It was brutal … and oddly, one of the fondest memories of my elementary school years. Not only did I master multiplication, but I also learned something much more important. When my report card came back that quarter with straight A’s, I learned that I could learn!

The Church's Call in Educating Their Community's Children

Community illustration, Sweet Lana / Shutterstock.com

Community illustration, Sweet Lana / Shutterstock.com

I love October. As a teacher, it was that time of year where rhythms were becoming established and the seeds of learning were beginning to sprout. In ministry, it is the time where I find myself riding the waves of my student’s school schedules in an effort to connect and converse. In either case, education, shapes not on the schedule of my life but the purpose.

As I breathe in the crisp autumn breeze, it reminds me to consider the larger partnership between the educators and the church. When we, as ministers and church leaders, consider what role education plays in the life of the church, we have to consider the active part of the church in the education of not only the church community, but its larger context.

Education, in the public context, is a constant topic of political struggle and strife. Education, in the ecclesial context, in its best is in-depth Bible study and at its worst is education by osmosis and observation. What is the call or consideration of the church to the topic of education? What role does the church have in the education of the community?

How Can People of Faith Help Students Achieve Their Potential?

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

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.

Church Partnerships Working to Stop School-to-Prison Pipeline

School-to-prison pipeline illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

School-to-prison pipeline illustration, Lightspring / Shutterstock.com

Over the last few years we have heard much about the school to prison pipeline. According to the ACLU, it is:

 a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.

The Children’s Defense Fund argues that because of a lack of early childhood education and healthy beginnings, this epidemic begins before a child is old enough to enroll in school, defining the problem as the Cradle to Prison pipeline. Organizations such as the Advancement Project, the Legal Defense Fund, and many others too have defined the school-to-prison pipeline as just another level to the mass incarceration epidemic and one of the most disturbing injustices we face today.

We know that the pipeline is undergirded by Zero Tolerance policies, mass expulsions, unprecedented school arrests, inadequate school funding, and myriad other unjust policies that either criminalize our children or rob them of the resources they need to be successful. We also know that high-school dropout is certainly a station on the pipeline. In many urban centers the dropout rate hovers around 50 percent, and some data suggests 7,000 students drop out of school every day. What happens to kids that drop out of school?  Where do kids who are expelled end up? 

Jon Stewart to Malala Yousafzai: 'Can I Adopt You?'

Just as she left the world speechless when she addressed the United Nations in July, Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani advocate for women’s rights and access to education, rendered America's jester Jon Stewart tongue tied when he hosted her this week on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Her new book I Am Malala is just released.

"Education is the power of women. That's why the terrorists are afraid of education. They do not want women to get education because then women would become more powerful," said Malala, who is nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize to be announced this week.

The Taliban first targeted Malala on "Googlenet" in 2012, she said. But she decided that it was better to not respond to the threats with violence, even in self-defense.

"If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then you will be no better than the Talib," she told a star-struck Stewart.

"Can I adopt you?" Stewart asked.

3 Reasons to Stand with Public Schools

Youth getting off a school bus,  Margie Hurwich / Shutterstock.com

Youth getting off a school bus, Margie Hurwich / Shutterstock.com

As with essentially any issue, you can find Christians with opinions all across the board regarding educational policy in the United States. I am not going to pretend there is one “right” political position for Christians to take or that I know all of the factors individuals consider when making choices about their children’s schooling. However, as a Christian, former public school student, and a public school teacher, there are three requests I would make of Christians regarding their conversations and their actions when it comes to education.

1. Please focus your efforts on issues of significance.

In public schools, the loudest Christian voices revolve around issues like the debate about removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (a phrase added to the pledge in 1954, a pledge that itself was only formally adopted by Congress in 1942). Another hot-button issue involves prayer in schools. When I have participated in “See You at the Pole” events as a student and as a teacher, I felt more like the hypocrite Jesus described praying loudly on a street corner than Daniel refusing to alter his by-the-open-window prayer routine.

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