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.

Getting Schooled

Inconvenient Truth-Teller: Waiting for ‘Superman’ director/activist Davis Guggenheim

Director Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ has set off fiery debates and earned him the scorn of teacher groups across America. But it’s all right with him, if the film leads to the nation getting more serious about saving its public schools.

Chances are you’ve heard about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which opened nationwide in theaters last weekend and has already grossed $1.6 million at the box office (a significant amount for a documentary). Guggenheim’s film has challenged Americans to stand up for children and fix the country’s broken education system. As with his previous film, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ has been the subject of plenty of controversy and debate, and has faced strong opposition (teacher unions) as well as strong support (Oprah!). Guggenheim recently sat down with UrbanFaith to discuss the film and how the church community can get involved in saving our schools.

URBAN FAITH: Since making this film, have you noticed any faith-based initiatives that are getting involved with this issue?

DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, the amazing thing about the movie is it speaks to everyone, no matter what his or her faith or political leanings. And the people who see the movie just fall in love with the kids and are inspired by the parents, because they see that every kid deserves a great education. I think faith-based groups see the moral consequences of our schools and that it’s a moral obligation to give every kid a great education.

How do you think the faith community can get more involved in the public education issue?

A lot of the big decisions happen behind closed doors at a negotiating table — the superintendent, a mayor, school board, union members. The seat that is often not filled is the person who’s fighting for the kids. What Michelle Rhee [chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system in Washington, D.C., who recently announced her resignation] says in the movie is that the system works for the adults — for harmony amongst adults. The people who get neglected are the kids. I think the power to help the kids can come from faith-based groups — people who can organize and gather and say this is important for our community; the heart of our community is a great school. With that collective power, they can really put a lot of muscle toward making decisions at that table to give every kid a great education.

What are your thoughts on the negative response from certain teacher groups and unions?

I think some of the dialogue has gotten a little heated. A lot of that comes from people who haven’t seen the movie or don’t want you to see the movie. When people see the movie, they see that at its heart are these kids who just want a great school. Even though there’s a lot of politics in the movie, the message is really apolitical. It asks the simple question: Why can’t we give every kid a great education? And the kids in my movie don’t care what the school is called, and they don’t care how it gets fixed or who’s to blame. They just want a great school.

Has the response from teachers who have seen the film been positive?

I think the majority of teachers get it. There are so many great teachers out there who are slugging it out every day, and they are already fighting for kids. A lot of things I bring up in the movie, they deal with every single day — the vast bureaucracies, the very strict rules. The majority of teachers welcome the message of the movie.

What challenges did you face while putting this documentary together?

I think the biggest challenge of making this movie has been to get people to believe again — that it’s possible. That sounds really simple, but in many of these neglected neighborhoods there’s this sense of “this is what you get” and “it’s been this way for a long time,” and that maybe it can’t be done. What I think is so inspiring about the message of the movie is that I’m showing — through the stories of Geoffrey Canada [president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone], the kids’ schools, and these great, inspired reformers — that it actually can be done if we have the political will and the moral will. And the idea of the movie speaking to regular people — mothers and fathers and churches — to say it’s time for us to come together and demand good schools and believe again.

When people walk away from this film, what kind of reaction do you want from them? What kind of actions should they be inspired to take?

Well, the first step is seeing the movie, because it gives you this basic primer on how we’ve gotten to where we’re at. And it really shows you the stakes; you feel what it’s like to want your kid to have a great education or to want to have big dreams. And you feel the consequences when you see Daisy and Anthony [students] in this movie. So that’s the first thing: to really see the movie and feel the stakes. And the next thing you do is act locally. See how you can help your local school. There are a hundred ways to help –simple ways like mentoring and volunteering, and then bigger ways like knowing who your school board member is, and letting your voice be heard, and joining your church or group and saying, let’s use our group power to push leaders to go further and to make decisions that are good for kids.

How has this film changed you?

It’s funny. When you have a little documentary and it starts to do well, you realize that it does well because of these “little angels” all the along the way — members of the press, elected officials, regular people who tell friends to go. The success of a little documentary comes from all these people. I find myself saying at the end of the day to everybody, “God bless you.” I’m not sure what religion I am, but “God bless you” — only because I feel like it really takes a certain kind of shared belief to get this thing done and to really bring people together to do something good. That’s the exciting part about it. That’s how it’s changed me. I’m just one piece of it. I’m a filmmaker, so I’m doing my piece. But everyone along the way is doing his or her piece, from mothers and dads, to teachers, to pastors and politicians.

Related Article: Put on Your Cape

Photo of Davis Guggenheim by Joi Ito from Wikipedia.

Wisdom of a 5th-Grade Solomon

Wisdom of a 5th-Grade Solomon for urban faithIt was only logical for my student to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates. As a result, they didn’t expect much from themselves.

“Ms. Baker, why are you teaching here?” one student, whom I’ll call Solomon, inquired during one of our after-school tutoring sessions. “You went to college,” he continued unabashedly. “Um…couldn’t you find a job anywhere else?”

I remember these words from one of my don’t-beat-around-the bush, inquisitive fifth grade students like it was yesterday. And to be honest, my presence at Caldwell Elementary School wasn’t the chosen career path for most of my peers.

I graduated from a highly ranked university with a degree in English. I considered law school or a Ph.D. program in English before ultimately choosing to join the national teaching corps, Teach For America. I’d committed to teach for two years in a low-performing public school in an economically depressed neighborhood that was notorious for crime, high school drop-outs, and the birthplace of gangster rap — Compton, California.

I struggled with the words to respond to Solomon’s very pointed question. “Well,” I mused, “I heard a rumor that the smartest kids in the world were at this school, so I wanted to be here with the geniuses,” I stated, hoping to further reinforce the high academic expectations I had for my students — despite how far behind many of them were.

Solomon looked at me for a moment and then he burst out laughing. He was not convinced of my words in the slightest. “Aw c’mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we’re smart! If they did, they wouldn’t give us this broken-down school and these ratty old books. You don’t even have enough paper and pencils for us!”

As a first-year teacher, I was shocked that a 10-year-old was fully aware of the implicit disparity in our country’s two-tiered public education system. He wondered why someone like me — an African American who had graduated from college and “made it” — would ever choose to teach in his low-income public school. He implied that I had a myriad of more lucrative, and more worthy, options. Solomon scoffed at the idea that other people thought he and his classmates were intelligent. And he completely understood that his school lacked the basic resources and facilities.

Most disturbingly, Solomon connected society’s low expectations for him as the reason why his school didn’t have the necessary supplies. After all, he seemed to suggest, why would our nation bother wasting resources on students who weren’t smart enough to succeed in the first place?

Having spent the last 15 years working on the movement to eliminate educational inequity, I now realize that my insightful fifth-grader’s assumptions weren’t surprising. What other conclusion could he come to in a country where 9-year-olds in poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in wealthier communities? What else should he think about a nation where only half of the 14 million students from low-income communities ever graduate from high school and only one in ten ever graduate from college?

It was quite logical for Solomon to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates in Compton. As a result, he didn’t expect much from himself either. As his teacher, it was my job to shift those expectations so Solomon and all my other students could reach their full potential.

We worked incredibly hard that year and it was thrilling to see Solomon, and the majority of my fifth-graders, excel at high levels that others might have thought impossible. Because of the tremendous growth I saw in my students, I am forever convinced that the problem of academic disparity is completely solvable.

The academic achievement gap, in a well-resourced country like ours, is a tragic moral injustice that should move people of faith to action. As Christians, let’s take stock of how we’re working to eliminate this problem. Are we encouraging our most talented college graduates and young professionals to teach in schools like Solomon’s? Are we mobilizing our church communities to volunteer, tutor, and provide much-needed supplies to under-resourced schools? Are we mobilizing on behalf of students like Solomon to demand that lawmakers create policies that will improve the quality of their education?

The Bible is pretty clear about our responsibility. God says that all children were created in his image, so we should believe every child has unlimited potential. God says that children are incredibly precious to him. And God tells us to eliminate injustice.

It’s time for Christians to take a stand on behalf of the “least of these” in our nation’s low-income public schools. Solomon and his classmates are waiting for us.

Education in Color

child in classroomRaising one half-African son and one of mixed European descent posed both ordinary and unique parenting challenges for my husband and me. What was best for one child was not necessarily best for the other. Often, competing concerns led to less than ideal decisions. This is true for all parents, but it is uniquely so for white parents raising children of a different race.

Education presented a particular challenge.

Our boys, Gabriel and Michael, began elementary school in my affluent hometown, which had a school system described by our regional newspaper as the closest thing to private school available in local public education. If they had grown up there, they would have benefited from a great program of academics, but little ethnic diversity. Gabriel would have had to face puberty and touchy dating issues without the benefit of African American role models to help him navigate the landmines. In kindergarten, he was already facing juvenile bigotry from a peer or two. If we raised him in one of the few racially diverse communities in our area, he might fit in better, but would attend schools with less impressive educational outcomes. And, besides, there really was no guarantee that he and Mike would be accepted by their peers. Their cultural DNA was solidly middle-class, white and suburban. Michael’s sensitive temperament also made it unlikely that he would prosper in a high-stress environment.

My husband and I sought the Lord and weighed the issues carefully. After much prayer, investigation and discussion, we moved our family to a community that is diverse on multiple planes: economic, ethnic, racial, and religious. When we lived there it was equal parts white, black, and brown; Christian and Jewish; wealthy, middle class, working class, and impoverished. The schools could provide a decent education we navigated them well.

There was a stellar band program, for example, that began in elementary school and sometimes ended with performances at New York Yankees playoff games. There were also magnet schools that ensured integration and nurtured children’s unique potential. Conversely there were more discipline problems and less support for average students than for those who excelled or lagged behind. Michael was an average student.

In New Jersey, education funding is dependent on property taxes. High property values lead to superior resources. In our new hometown, resources were scarce. Creative financing sometimes closed the gap. For example, when students were classified with educational challenges, the school system received extra funding. Thus, many more students were “classified” than might be elsewhere. Creative funding came at a price, though. Such students were labeled early and taught separately in the same classroom as other students and teachers facing multiple sources of distraction.

I’ve often thought that if my husband had been black, we would have raised our sons in my hometown. It was small and idyllic. Both boys would have received a stellar academic foundation and Gabe would have had a role model at home to help him deal with identity issues. As it was, my husband and I were clueless about basics like what to do about his “ashy skin” or where to get him a decent hair cut. Living in a diverse community solved a lot of everyday problems and allowed us to develop socially and biblically responsible attitudes about race that we might not have otherwise developed. Still, there were costs.

Michael was in third grade when his teacher seated him between the three most disruptive students in her class. She told me she was using him as a buffer because she knew he wouldn’t be drawn into their behavior. I was finishing college at the time, and as I pondered the fact that I was pursuing higher education while my child was struggling for an elementary one, I decided that I could not continue allowing him to flounder in a sub-standard situation. The only private schools nearby were either too expensive or sectarian, so my husband and I made the monumental decision to home-school him –something we had never before envisioned. Gabriel was excelling in the “Gifted and Talented” magnet program at the time. Within two weeks of beginning to home-school Michael, Gabe asked to be home-schooled as well. We agreed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the “Gifted” education was brimming with creativity but lean on basics.

I home-schooled Gabe and Mike through eighth grade and then they returned to public school. Culture shock from being out of sync with current fads may have been more of a challenge than any race discomfort either of them had previously faced. It was short lived though. The summer before Gabriel’s senior year and Michael’s sophomore year, we decided to go on a grand adventure and moved to Southern California. The boys bounced through a couple schools until we finally settled on a public school that was similar in ethnic and economic make-up to their diverse hometown.

One would have thought from our earlier experiences that we would have had the good sense to intentionally seek out racially diverse secondary and higher education. But, instead we slipped back into a white suburban lifestyle without really trying or noticing. Perhaps we assumed the job of diversity training and identity building was done. Perhaps it was done to such a degree that our children no longer meshed with their suburban peers. With the move, I was eager to make up for lost academic ground. When it came to college, my husband and I shared the concerns of many Christian parents that our sons’ education stretch and reinforce their faith rather than chip away at it.

Gabriel, who was a member of the National Honor Society, chose a competitive Christian college in the Midwest. Without giving much thought to the fact that Christian colleges tend to have low minority enrollment, we sent him halfway across the country. For the first time since kindergarten, he faced overt racism both among the student body and in the surrounding community. What bothered him more than fried chicken jokes and his inability to find an off-campus job was the apathy of his Christian peers when it came to systemic racial injustice. Because of his history of educational upheaval, he chose to slug it out there for four years. And I do mean slug it out. He struggled academically and socially, but was also a provocative campus voice regarding race issues.

I wish we had understood Gabriel’s continued need for an educational environment that was as supportive of his unique humanity as it was of his academic potential and Christian faith. By the time he graduated in 2007, we did understand and were making plans to move from Orange County, California, to Long Beach, a more diverse community. Gabe died tragically before we could make that move. I wrote about his death and my family’s ongoing journey through grief in a recent issue of Christianity Today.

It’s a cliché to say that hindsight is 20/20, so instead of outlining what I would do differently if I had it to do over again, I offer this advice to parents whose children are a different race from them:

1. Do not underestimate your child’s need to connect with and affirm their identity, especially as he or she begins to approach adulthood.

2. Recognize that part of your child’s inner struggle very well may be your lack of awareness. They may lash out at you and/or romanticize their absent heritage. They love those who’ve loved and nurtured them, but need room to grow into their unique selves. Their perspective on life will be fundamentally different from yours — as it is for all children, but especially for them. This is something to encourage and celebrate.

3. I do not suggest that every family raising a child of a different race pick up roots and move to an integrated community or join an integrated church (obviously, this will not be possible for everyone). Despite the negatives, for us, having done so was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.

4. What I do suggest, however, is that you take your child’s racial identity (and difference) seriously and that you become a lifelong learner yourself.

Throughout his life, Gabriel was educating us simply by his experience in and of the world. That we did not see our own convictions about diversity through to the end of our parenting responsibility is something I regret. It was only after my Gabriel died and I was reflecting back on his funeral that I realized the only racially integrated element it included was the presence of his eulogists and friends. In the midst of our shock and grief, we didn’t think of Gabe as an African American man, but as a son. He was both.