A Mom’s Desperate (School) Choice

A Mom’s Desperate (School) Choice

OUTLAW MOM: Kelley Williams-Bolar spent ten days in an Akron, Ohio, jail.

The jailing of an Ohio woman for lying about her residency to get her kids into a better school says tons about the sad shape of public education in America. But in our eagerness to sympathize, it’s easy to overlook the fact that what she did is wrong.

Forget about “waiting for Superman.” When it came to getting her daughters into a good school, this Ohio mother pulled a Batman and took the law into her own hands. Now she’s paying for it.

I was alerted to the story of Kelley Williams-Bolar by Seattle pastor and One Day’s Wages founder Eugene Cho, who insisted via Twitter that “this is not a story from The Onion,” echoing the common Dave Barry refrain, “I’m not making this up.” Such is the palpable sense of outrage and disbelief across the blogosphere regarding the news of her conviction and subsequent jailing.

Ms. Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, was recently convicted of two felony counts in connection with her misrepresenting her children’s residency in order to enroll them in an exclusive school district. Most of the protest over this development stems from the sympathy generated over a mother who wants the best for her children, as well as the bitter irony that her conviction will prevent Ms. Williams-Bolar from successfully completing her teacher certification (she had been working on an education degree, and serving as a special-needs instructional assistant).

Though there are those who want to see this primarily as a story about race, I’ve read fewer accusations of the R-word than I expected to see. It seems as cooler heads are prevailing. Yet, even when viewed strictly through the lens of class, it’s hard not to be uneasy about seeing a mother being prosecuted over where she sent her children to school. It’s hard not to wonder what’s wrong with the schools in her area if a mother’s got to go through all of that rigmarole and subterfuge to ensure a quality education for her kids.

But let’s ignore the big societal issues for a moment. Let’s just look at this from the perspective of the mother trying to secure an education for her children. Were her only two options to either break the law or send her kids to languish in substandard schools? Somehow, I think not.

People often refer to looking at the opposite side of an argument as “playing Devil’s advocate,” which is ironic, because for once I’d like to advocate for God. (Not that He needs it, but just go with me.)

It’s beyond cliché to ask the hypothetical question, “What would Jesus do?” Instead, let’s ask a more difficult-yet-salient question, “What does Jesus want right now?” That is, assuming we as believers in Christ were in a situation similar to Kelley Williams-Bolar — and many of us who are African American and live in dense urban areas already are — what is the proper Christian response to this kind of challenge?

At the risk of sounding flip, I must say — this kind of law-breaking isn’t it.

And it’s not because God doesn’t care about our children being educated. As a matter of fact, it’s precisely because God cares about our children that we must be careful. Jesus had some pointed things to say about those who mislead children and cause them to sin. And the apostle Paul also instructed his protégé Timothy to oppose teachers of false doctrine. What this shows us is that God holds to a higher standard those in the position of providing moral guidance, as both parents and teachers do.

So what kind of message does it send for a teacher to skirt the rules for the benefit of her family? How can she tell other students that the rules are for everyone, when she acts as though certain rules shouldn’t apply to her or others in her situation?

More to the point, God wants us to have faith. Not in district reassignment, or voucher programs, or tax redistribution, but to have faith in Him, and His ability to supply our needs. I have no idea if Kelley Williams-Bolar is a believer in Christ or not, but I know many people in similar situations who chose differently in light of God’s providence in their life.

Maybe she could’ve been up front about where she lived and could’ve gotten scholarship assistance from a third party. Maybe there would’ve been people in her faith community who could’ve helped her find a place within the boundaries of that exclusive district. Maybe she could’ve asked her father to share custody of the girls. Maybe all of them could’ve moved in with their father. Or maybe she could’ve challenged her girls to do their best in the less-demanding schools in her area, and done her best to find additional educational resources to help close the performance gap.

I’m not saying these other issues of law and politics and inequity are invalid. They’re very important, but for parents trying to raise their kids, these issues are beside the point.

The point is, God has a whole universe of resources to work with, and if we come to Him with devoted hearts, He will cause all things to work together for good. We don’t need to second-guess His providence by making morally questionable decisions and using situational ethics to justify them.

That’s the lesson I hope Christians walk away with. Just as obedience is better than sacrifice, we must also remember: the wrong thing for the right reason is still the wrong thing.

Video and screen-capture image from WEWS, newsnet5.com.

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.