The Antidote for a Dropout Culture

The Antidote for a Dropout Culture

I am the product of the American public school system. There was only one high school option in the city where I was raised; I assimilated to this school where approximately 96 percent of the student population was African American. Like so many others, I had big dreams, so I did the best that I could for the possibility of exploring opportunities outside my small town. Thanks to the love, support, education, and training that I received from teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators in that school, I was able to walk across the graduation stage and shake the hand of former Vice President Dick Cheney as I received my bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy in 2002.

Less than ten years later, I find myself perplexed at the lack of preparation of so many students graduating from the public school system, if they graduate from high school at all. The 2010 Waiting for Superman documentary revealed that there are over 2,000 high school “dropout factories” in the United States. These are failing schools in failing neighborhoods where students do not have the caring guidance counselors, mentors, or teachers that I had while growing up. These kids do not have choices, so their dreams die, and as far as they are concerned, all of their life’s hope dies with them.

My brother attended schools where the cafeteria ran out of salad before his lunch hour, or maybe the leaves on the remaining salad were brown. I have seen first hand the old, worn textbooks with missing pages. I have tutored middle and high school students that were making As and Bs in the public school system, yet could not read, write, or walk you through the steps of a basic algebra problem.

What happens to all of these children? They sometimes end up in prison or on the streets. And many rich and middle-class (or what used to be middle-class) Americans sit idly by as we have victimized these children and forced them to fail for no other reason than being born into the wrong womb in the wrong neighborhood where they attend the worst schools. They are not prepared to embrace the opportunities that are now failing even some of the most educated and hardworking Americans.

It is comfortable to pretend as if this tragedy is not going on because it is not happening in your neighborhood, but I ask this question: “What about the least of those among us?” We are raising an illiterate generation; what does that mean for the church?

It means that young people are not being taught to know God intimately and grow in their relationship with Him. After all, mature Christians frequently point to the Bible for revelations of our faith. We point to the Bible for those who desire to know God. The Bible is a book that consists of various genres of literature: narratives, poetry, similes and metaphors, allegory, and other types of figurative language that are not all accurately interpreted in the same manner.

Instead of confronting this challenge, we set the standards lower. In the same manner that the public school system is passing students through school, American Christians are giving the silent nod in support with sound-bite theology for our young people — give them a devotional, show a video, invent a quick phone app, after all their attention span is not that long (so there are no expectations for them to sit and learn through the oral traditions of old). Our young people need to be educated and they need to know the Bible.

When addressing issues of abstinence, life’s purpose, failing expectations, homosexuality, developing Christian character and the like, Bible literacy is more important than ever for our young people. Here’s the bottom line: it is our responsibility to teach our youth, to come alongside them, and help them see the importance of getting a good education. It is also our responsibility to paint the big picture for them about how a solid academic foundation can lead to God’s greater good for their lives.

I believe that the failing educational system is one of the greatest domestic justice issues of today’s American church. God requires us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. We are to care about the same things that He cares about and the last time I checked, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

I wonder what would happen in this country if the church rose to lead the charge to provide educational options. What would happen if churches spent money to build and resource more schools to support free Christian education instead of building bigger sanctuaries for themselves? Or what would happen if those same churches with resources bought buses to bring students to their churches and financially support a tutoring ministry for the children who need it?

What would happen if the homeschool moms decided to also homeschool a child who lives across the tracks or across the bridge? If they had the same concern for their neighbor’s children as they do for their own?

What would happen if Christian men made this injustice a priority? Or if housewives, stay-at-home moms, singles and widows, unemployed and part-time workers, and retirees committed their time and resources to tutoring youth in the neighborhoods where the schools are failing? There is more than enough work for all of us to do.

I wonder if the church stood up, would we continue to see a lost generation of children whose lives of struggle are sure to end in poverty, prostitution, jail, unhealthy relationships, or homelessness? I wonder if any of this matters to the church.

Put on Your Cape

In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ director Davis Guggenheim examines the reasons for America’s public education crisis, and challenges us to do something about it.

I recently had the opportunity to view the new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ at a special pre-release screening. As an urban pastor, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, education and its impact on our children has become an issue close to my heart. So I settled into my seat with high hopes for the potential of this film to shine light on the many problems facing our nation’s schools. I was not disappointed.

Director Davis Guggenheim strikes an effective balance between telling personal stories (he follows the journey of five students) while also examining the demise of the national public school system, at a systemic level, over the past four decades. It is not a pretty tale.

The curious title of the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, the innovative and relentless leader of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada tells the story of growing up in the projects of the Bronx and how he often fantasized about someone swooping in from the outside and saving him and his friends. His favorite superhero was Superman, who always seemed to show up when the people were in the greatest peril. Even as a young child, Canada knew the residents of his neighborhood were in grave danger because of socioeconomic inequities. It was a life-altering moment for him when his mother sternly warned him, “Geoffrey, Superman is not coming to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to find our own way out.”

With this anecdote, Canada connects the viewer to the seriousness of this issue. He points out how children begin receiving contradictory messages about education from an early age. They are told, on one hand, that education is the key to being successful in this country’s economy. On the other hand, he says, they attend local schools that are “failure factories” that give them no chance at academic success. Kids are smart, and they interpret what is happening. They perceive early on that “this society is a cold, hard place.” They see that they are getting the short end of the stick, and they don’t know why. But they quickly figure out that there is no use in waiting for a superhero to fix the problem.

Throughout the film we are drawn into an emotional connection with the five young students (Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily) and their respective parents/guardians. Each child shows a great deal of aptitude and hope for the future, yet each is in danger because they live in a neighborhood with failing or dysfunctional schools. I imagine that each person in the audience who watches this will closely identify with at least one of the children.
For me it was Bianca, an amazing sixth-grader who wants to become a doctor someday so that she can spend her life “helping people.” As she shares her dreams, it’s easy to think that this bright girl’s internal drive and the nurture and support of her loving family should be enough to help her succeed. But then Guggenheim’s camera pulls back to give us a full view of the dilapidated school Bianca is on track to attend for seventh grade. It is one of the schools deemed a “failure factory.” Attending there, he notes matter-of-factly, will drop Bianca’s chances of success to an almost impossible percentage. Her parents decide that that Bianca’s best chance for achieving her dream will be to get accepted to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school miles away. But KIPP has only a handful of spaces open and hundreds of applicants.

In the Trenches: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada in the classroom. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

This is the essence of the first big point Guggenheim seems to be making in the film. In urban areas in particular, the vast majority of public schools range in quality somewhere between “mediocre,” at best, to “abject,” at worst. Typically in a large city there’s at least a handful of schools that are doing exceedingly well, but the demand to get into those schools is exponentially greater than the number of students those schools are able to admit.

As the film progresses, Guggenheim proposes what he seems to think may be the most substantial obstacle of all: selfish human agendas intertwined with antiquated policies and immoveable teacher unions. To make his point, the director spends a large amount of time following Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Rhee is a fiery and dynamic personality whose brash efforts at school reform are shown to be both innovative and polarizing. In Guggenheim’s narrative, she and Geoffrey Canada (as well as other iconoclastic teachers and administrators) represent the kind of super-persons required to rescue an imploding system. But the odds are stacked against them like a wall of Kryptonite.

Guggenheim weaves in and out of the lives of the five students and their families while regularly coming back to the list of obstacles to educational equity. Teacher tenure for those in the public school system is another heavy issue that’s tackled. How can a school insist on great teachers if there is no motivation for greatness and no way to fire underperforming teachers? Other obstacles explored include confusion between federal and state regulations, poor leadership in schools, and unmotivated teachers.

It’s here that Guggenheim is bound to run into the greatest amount of resistance from some within the public education community. With his previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, the director drew the skepticism and ire of conservative critics who question the science behind global warming. With Waiting for ‘Superman,’ teacher unions and the politicians (primarily Democrats) who depend on them most for support comes under the most severe scrutiny. But, to be sure, Guggenheim spends just as much time highlighting the extraordinary and often sacrificial efforts of teachers who are making a difference in their students’ lives.

As the documentary moves toward its conclusion, at least two major themes emerge. First, Guggenheim wants to bring into the open a fallacy that has become too commonplace behind closed doors: that children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods cannot be educated at as high a level as children in middle-class environments. To make his point, he takes viewers deep into two successful charter-school models: KIPP — which now runs 52 schools and counting — and the Harlem Children’s Zone. In a nation with increasingly low expectations for urban schools, these two models are changing the stakes. Both are generating incredible results year after year, and these results are changing the landscape. Guggenheim observes that children from KIPP and HCZ are not just achieving scores higher than other poor kids; they are achieving scores higher than all kids.

The second big theme is the call to all Americans (not just educators) to be concerned, and even outraged, by the discrepancies that exist in our public-school systems. Viewers are instructed to take action by visiting the film’s website for tips that include getting involved by attending local school board meetings, donating funds to help purchase supplies for under-resourced schools, and encouraging your governor and other state leaders to adopt the Common Core Standards as a way of improving the quality of the schools in your state.

For me, the most poignant moment of the documentary came near the end. We travel with each of the five children attending the lotteries where they will discover whether or not they have been accepted into the schools that give them their best shot at success. As you see the lottery balls turning in slow motion and names being drawn out of a hat, it seems impossible to believe that the fate of these children is left to something as arbitrary as a random drawing.
At a personal level, I’m both provoked and inspired by Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The film’s message compels me to do more. It makes me hope that many of us will rise to the challenge for the sake of our kids. It reminds me of the piercing words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).

The educational system in this country has become a stumbling block for too many children and families. If nothing else, Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes the mish-mash of agendas and broken-down systems that brought us to the sad place we are today. We must deepen the national conversation about how to best improve schools. But even more important, we must experience a national awakening to the importance of our children. We must place their futures at the forefront of our agendas.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens Sept. 24 in limited release and everywhere on Oct. 8. For more information, visit the film’s website.