Our Call to Public Education for urban faithHow many eighth-grade Bible studies lead with Lamentations? Or Leviticus? Not many that I’m aware of.

Yet last I checked, Lamentations and Leviticus are part of the biblical canon, along with Romans and Revelation and lots of other heady reading material.

Should it matter to pastors, then, that the average graduate of America’s city schools reads at an eighth-grade level and that many high school graduates don’t even rank that high?

If pastors believe Scripture, then absolutely it should. Romans teaches that spiritual transformation occurs by renewing the mind according to the Word of God — not at altar calls or church services. Besides being ill-equipped to compete in an information economy, where the currency is fluency with words, how likely are poor readers to engage the written Word?

And what about the millions of students who don’t graduate at all? Detroit graduates fewer than 30 percent of public school students. The on-time graduation rates of Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles hover in the 30s. In 2008, New York City graduated 44 percent on time, the same year that it received the nation’s highest prize for education reform.

If the moral test of a society is how it treats children, America has failed the same test year after year for decades. Specifically, we have failed to educate the urban poor despite promising equal access to quality education for all. This educational inequity — where the place of one’s childhood determines the quality of one’s education — has been called our nation’s greatest injustice and the civil rights issue of our day.

And we evangelicals have watched it happen, having abdicated public education after misbelieving that prayer had been outlawed from schools.

The crisis in schools is first and foremost a crisis in leadership. A systematic refusal to accept accountability for chronic under-performance has permitted decades of institutional failure, which has placed current and future generations at risk of social unrest and decay. In return for decades of unfulfilled promises, we have reaped generations of unfulfilled promise.

Comprehensive reform requires multi-sector, collaborative strategies led by men and women willing to commit, as Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone says, “to fix this problem … to put politics aside and do what’s right for America’s children.” Churches, and pastors who lead them, are uniquely positioned to lead the effort to right this wrong.
First, the God we preach requires us to care about justice (Micah 6:8, Isaiah 61:1-8).

The prologue to Proverbs’ Wife of Noble Character describes the Bride of Christ at her most noble: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

Second, Jesus activates us as salt and light, that the world “may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt that loses its preservative and flavoring effects — or otherwise remains inside the saltshaker of our churches — is useless.

Finally, He charges pulpit people to equip those in the pews for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4). On any given Sunday, 50-80 percent of people in any given church are directly connected to schools — positioned by God for impact. They’re students, parents, grandparents, otherwise related, teachers, custodians, principals, assistants, and administrators. What would happen if preachers activated them for “good deeds” within those schools?

The 20/20 Vision for Schools campaign launched in September 2008 with that question in mind. Its mission: transform public education in New York City and beyond within a single generation of students. The movement reflects an unwavering commitment to the idea that every child deserves equal access to a first-class education; and the resolve to overcome a history of institutional failure with innovation, collaboration, and accountability.

More specifically, 20/20 mobilizes churches and community groups to come alongside public schools for meaningful advocacy and service. Its vision is for first graders of September 2008 — who are the graduating high school class of 2020 — to reverse decades of chronic under-performance and graduate in record numbers, equitably across demographics and neighborhoods, with the skills and character necessary to achieve in life.

Mobilizing congregations for scalable engagement requires a plan, and 20/20’s school adoption paradigm moves congregations from no relationship to holistic, transformative relationships. It begins by committing to pray for a specific neighborhood school as often as the church prays. If America’s 300,000 evangelical churches actually prayed for its 100,000 public schools, dare we expect God to answer?

It continues as congregations overcome generational mistrust by cultivating personal relationships at the school. Pastors and youth leaders should strive to connect with the principals, guidance counselors, and teachers at the schools in their communities. Those school leaders are probably looking for advocates who can continue to encourage and support students once the school day is over. And, unfortunately, not all students have parents or adult role models in their homes who can fulfill that task.

Next, churches can become answers to prayer by responding to felt needs with meaningful acts of service such as beautification efforts or event sponsorships. Then churches develop an ongoing presence by volunteering as coaches, mentors, or tutors, or coordinating leadership clubs.

Finally, comes the credibility to affect policy both at the school and district level. But it must be earned.

To date, nearly 200 New York churches have adopted schools through 20/20. Together, they have open-sourced a multi-sector effort to transform education in America.
Since the problems are too vast for one person, group, or community to overcome on its own, sharing ideas, best practices, funding solutions, evaluation methodologies, and reform strategies represents the best way to engage the best minds in transforming public education in this country. If it’s “about the kids,” 20/20 reminds us to share.

And to lead.

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