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Gotta Have Faith: Black Churches May Hold the Key to Educational Ills

Unfortunately in our current public school system, the quality of education a child receives is largely based on the income level and race of his parents. This is evident in the long-standing achievement gap that exists between white and Asian on the upper tier and blacks and Hispanics on the lower tier. There are multiple external contributors to this sad reality: Lack of parental engagement, joblessness, crime, and poverty.

Educators who hold low expectations for their students, under-resourced schools, and the fact that low-income students are far more likely to have novice teachers are also to blame.

Teachers in high-crime, low-income areas, however, must never throw up our hands in defeat; we must do our jobs to the very best of our ability. Once we have satisfied that expectation, we should insist on more support from the community, particularly from faith-based organizations that have established roots in the neighborhood but have gotten a pass on their role in fixing the problem.

We must investigate policies aimed at breaking the learned helplessness of students and the pessimism that often plagues our administrators and teachers in low-performing schools. The educators in these schools have a difficult but extremely important job to do. For most poor minority students, attaining a quality education is the only path out of poverty.

Policymakers do poor black students a disservice when they pretend that the conditions under which these students learn (and teachers teach) are the same as students in affluent white communities. An influx of resources, human capital, and ingenuity is required to educate students who experience hunger, family trauma, and disenfranchisement on a regular basis.

Teachers alone cannot compensate for the students' challenging lives. The African proverb states, "It takes a village to raise a child," but the message seems to have shifted to "It takes a school."

Many urban black students look outside their living room windows and see a dangerous world that is waiting to eat them alive. When they are sitting at their desks struggling to understand an abstract academic concept, it is very easy for them to give up—just as some adults around them have done. Many of the children have also experienced traumatic life events and need tangible reasons to hope. Their teachers also need innovative support systems to keep them encouraged that their efforts are truly making a difference. Creating a culture of hope is the fundamental first step in narrowing the achievement gap.

How can one create an education policy of hope? What role does a culture of hope play in the fight for better education? Black Americans have lived through slavery, sharecropping during Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of the nation's first African-American president. Through it all, the black church has consistently been the respected anchor of the community. While far from perfect, the church has historically served as the mouthpiece for the needs of black people, as well as their beacon of hope.

Today, there seems to be a church on every corner in the black community—sometimes two or three. Very few of these churches, however, have "adopted" a nearby public school and provided support services to the principal, teachers, students and families. This support comes in the form of free after-school tutoring, one-on-one mentoring; and sports team coaching, among other things. Upstanding men and women from houses of worship need to play a bigger role in the lives of the community's children.

For example, at one Chicago high school when a student gets into a fight or misbehaves in a way that is worthy of out-of-school suspension, the parents have a choice: The student can either hang out at home all day or he can volunteer at a local church or food pantry under the supervision of a trusted pastor or community leader.

Such programs need to be legitimized as the rule, not the exception.

With the high school dropout rate and murder rate in Chicago reaching record numbers, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has implored the faith community in impoverished sections of the city to increase its engagement with the schools and police. Emanuel apparently understands that the government's reach is too short to single-handedly turn around neighborhoods that have suffered from racial isolation and physical and psychological poverty for generations.

In addition, political efforts to help are often hindered by the people's wholesale distrust of the police and government.

Black clergymen, who have a measure of street credibility, have themselves gotten slack in fulfilling their spiritual and historic legacy of reaching beyond the church walls to engage in the public square, particularly in the realm of education. Slaves secretly learned to read from the pages of the Bible. Historically black universities were the mind child of the Negro church. Even today, conflicting black neighbors might decide to bypass the courts and take their interpersonal grievances to the pastor.

I know all too well the influence of the black church. When my truck-driving father was on the road, leaving my mother to raise eight children alone, it was the church that kept us encouraged that things would one day get better. When I began to succumb to negative peer pressures in high school, it was the church that gently counseled me back on track. When my family fell on hard financial times and our food stamps ran low, the church distributed the government cheese, powdered milk, and other non-perishable items to us so that we could have something to eat.

Moreover, I believed the preacher when he told me that the world would be mine if I got an education. And it was the church I turned to for an emergency $300 to pay for a political science class at a junior college. I simply did not have the money, and without that class I would not have been able to graduated on time with my bachelors degree in English.

I understand and respect the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which limits the role religion can play in public education. Churches and schools would have to be educated on the freedoms and restraints of the law.

I also realize that schools in low-income communities need help. If schools are going to get better, local organizations like churches need to come along side schools to help address the social, emotional, and spiritual triggers in a kid that can one day escalate to murder.

Amid the bleak governmental fiscal projections, the church remains an under-utilized yet valuable asset to public education. And when the church reaches out to the widows (single mothers included) and the fatherless, it can proudly say it is living out its own mission.

I know there is a place, a tender place, where the cultural influences of the black church and the educational policies of City Hall can intersect. At this momentous place, hope will once again take root, and the violent, blood-stained streets I pass on my way home will slowly experience a resurrection.

*Minor updates added on 3/7/13

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