Despite our history of antagonism toward public schools, especially as a cultural darkness seems to have settled on them, it’s intriguing to wonder: what if Christians flooded public schools with practical help? What if Christians became more willing to enroll their children in public schools? And what if the lines between public and private educations began to blur?

Such “what ifs” describe a continuum of thinking and action in a growing number of Presbyterian churches. ByFaith spoke to laypeople and pastors in Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, and New York, asking what’s wrong with public schools, can we fix them (or even make a dent), and why should we consider supporting them now after so many years of building our own school systems that are safer, more academically sound, and biblically based?

Their answers may surprise you.

Some privately admit that helping public schools is the right thing, but they would never enroll their children in one. Others cite success stories of evangelism, discipleship, tutoring, and role modeling opportunities resulting from their personal involvement—factors that energize them to volunteer again. Some become involved but feel overwhelmed by what they describe as the cultural darkness, although they may stay with the effort because of the huge need. Others plow forward, convinced that engaging the public school community is part of God’s call.

An encouraging number told byFaith that they experience great personal joy in helping public schools. They see more reasons to rejoice, fewer reasons to grumble. They are tired of finger pointing, eager to serve. They are rewarded with a softening of their attitudes toward what they still may perceive as the sorry state of America’s public schools, because they see specific ways they are making a difference in lives of students, faculty, families, even the physical campus where they volunteer. These people see God at work in that environment, and they feel hope.

Transforming our communities

Many have caught the vision of leaders such as Drue Warner, director of Live, Work and Play Ministries at Atlanta’s Perimeter Church (PCA), who notes that churches have become more externally focused in the last decade. “We may have cared about our communities evangelistically, but we haven’t cared holistically about the needs of our communities. If we want to see God do a work of transformation in our communities, it really starts by building relationships with families, because there’s a lot of breakdown in families. And one of the best places to build a relationship with families is in our public schools. They’re the hubs of our communities.”

Warner recalls Christians’ earlier efforts to influence public schools, and “when it became obvious that we were not allowed to [lead with the gospel], we got mad and said, ‘Well, we’re going home.’ I think churches now have a perspective that is accurate, one that says, ‘You know what? We can preach the gospel in the public schools, and the way we’re going to do that is through our lives, by allowing teachers, students, families, and administrators to experience the love of Christ through our actions, with a goal of provoking them to ask questions, provoking them to curiosity.’ Once that happens, you can talk about whatever you want.”

Adds Warner: “The schools see through experience that the church is not here with an ulterior motive—our ultimate motive is to love, to serve, to bless. As they receive that, as they experience that, as they begin to trust us, to trust our hearts and motivation—they become very open and transparent. If we have a message of hope, they’re willing to listen.”

Warner shares an anecdote of how he found incentive after Atlanta’s large Perimeter Church had been casting a vision for members to invest themselves in public schools. He admits “though my heart wasn’t really in it, I felt like I needed to try this.”

He walked into a school, told administrators he lived in the community and was on staff at a church that encouraged members to volunteer at public schools. “Within half an hour they had me connected with a first-grade boy who didn’t have a dad at home. They said, ‘If you’ll come once a week and meet with him for 30 minutes over lunch, it would make a major difference in this boy’s life.’ I strolled out of there with a whole new view.”

The experience was so beneficial to both the pastor and the boy that Warner and his wife feel compelled to enroll their daughter in public school, even though—with Warner on staff—the family would have a scholarship to Perimeter Christian School.

Would they be throwing their daughter to the wolves? No, says Warner. In addition to a commitment to have direct impact on what she learns by being more involved in her public education, the Warners have made peace with the realization that it’s their job as parents to teach her the Bible. They characterize the education and environment at Perimeter Christian School as “great,” but think the decision for public schooling is best for their family because of the intentionality with which they will be involved in their daughter’s academics, plus knowing that giving her a biblical worldview and kingdom perspective is their responsibility.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’”

A critically acclaimed documentary film entitled Waiting for ‘Superman’ was released in fall of 2010. The film analyzed failures of American public education by following several students through the system. Conservative critics praised the film, despite the director’s liberal stance, saying it added useful information and ideas to the debate.

Members of Indianapolis’s Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA) several years ago gave up waiting for Superman—caped or otherwise—and began a deliberate effort to rejuvenate the city’s public school system. Pastor Jason Dorsey, his wife, and four children lead by example.

Some, like the Dorseys, enrolled their children in Indianapolis Public Schools. Others did their part to reverse the trend of white flight/socio-economic flight by selling suburban homes and moving close to the church’s urban location, making it easier to volunteer and—just as important—to care about the schools which became their neighbors. 

Dorsey is part of a grassroots partnership of educators, civic leaders, and neighbors called IPS Renewal, which counts among its goals the recruiting of gifted teachers, administrators, and principals, and a reversal of suburban flight—and an end to socioeconomic/ethnic isolation—due to the quality of inner-city schools.

In addition to Jesus calling His followers to be salt and light in the world—not retreating from it—Dorsey cites the trumpet call to service described in Isaiah 58, adding that public schools need rigorous Christian engagement. “Public schools are the frontlines of social problems facing our cities.”

He volunteers on Thursdays for lunch duty at a high school and coaches the junior varsity baseball team. His message to the public school system, its students and families: “In your poverty, in your suffering the wounds of a broken family, in the absence of male role models, I stand with you.”

Dorsey has warnings. “It is a false belief to assume that public schools can’t provide our children with top-notch educations. Our four children are receiving rigorous, holistic educations in IPS.

“And Christian parents must remember that sending one’s child to a Christian school will not make that child a Christian; only God’s regenerating power will do that.”

Helping a struggling system

Individual feedback from volunteers in public schools is a mishmash of joys, concerns, surprising blessings, and discouraging letdowns. Some report that the entire emotional spectrum occurs in one day of washing windows for a school or tutoring children or helping teachers or delivering basic supplies such as pencils that, without donations, educators would pay for out of their pockets. As a result, some volunteers retreat from the effort. Others plow forward, returning to public school campuses day after day, certain that God called them to this environment.

Many volunteers are committed to activities such as tutoring, even stopping by a school on their way to work or during their noon hour to read to a classroom of rowdy students while a flustered teacher prepares another lesson or simply catches his or her breath.

“Hands-on is our best method of helping a struggling system,” explains Kim Blankenship, who works at Second Presbyterian (EPC) of Memphis. “Believers are called to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Blankenship tells a familiar story among churches who partner with schools. Sandy Willson, senior minister, asked the Memphis school superintendent a question: “What can we as a church do to help?” The need was obvious; an overwhelming majority of the city’s students qualified for free lunches, an indicator of poverty, and graduation rates were among the nation’s lowest. The superintendent answered, “We’d love your help!” and recommended joining the Adopt-A-School program.

So Second Presbyterian began what Blankenship describes as a partnership with neighboring Berclair Elementary, where the need was great.

She shares examples of educators who became so frustrated they had to scream to control their classrooms. Contributing factors, says Blankenship, were overcrowded classrooms that are underresourced and other behavior issues that are exhibited in the students.

“Little structured discipline exists in our public schools. Many of these children come from stressful home lives which carries over into misbehaving at school. Teachers deal with this by themselves all day, so when we come in we provide a different approach—we come to assist the teacher and love the children. Church volunteers provide a calming presence as soon as we enter, perhaps because we are someone other than the teacher or because the kids sense something special about the hearts of these Christ-centered volunteers.”

Among positive outcomes: Berclair Elementary now has higher teacher retention rates. The school passed its required standardized testing. Parent involvement has increased in activities such as cleaning up the school grounds. Adds Blankenship: “Teachers trust church volunteers enough to allow us access to all parts of life at Berclair, even to the extent of adding a desk in a classroom for loyal volunteers. Berclair is a positive and happy place to be, because we see the work of Christ being done and we see changes.”

Softening our attitudes

Leaders provide guidance about being realistic and softening our attitudes. Ray Cortese leads Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Lecanto, Florida. Warns Cortese: “I don’t think we need to soften our opinion of the limitations of any education that fails to recognize the heart of all truth—the reality of God. We do need to engage, though.

“Jesus associated with those far from God (tax collectors and prostitutes) much to the chagrin of the religious right of His day. He came to seek and to save the lost. Seeking connotes actively going to where the lost are. Those ‘lost’ in our communities are in public schools. If we are not there as teachers, coaches, mentors, etc., then we are not very wise seekers. We may differ on whether public education is redeemable, but there is no doubt that the families and faculty who live and work there are objects of the Savior’s redemptive love.”

Seven Rivers Church asked a member, a public school principal, if he would welcome workers onto his campus. His enthusiastic answer led to a church partnership with the school. The experience was so validating to the principal that he expressed his joy—tearfully—at an event, saying “My two worlds are finally coming together.”

Hearing this, member Wendy Busk realized that the principal “saw that his calling to education was fully embraced by his church—that we are ‘for’ him, and it was healing.”

Tim Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Church, makes the case that Jeremiah 29:7 “tells us to seek the peace and shalom of the whole city.” Keller adds: “A lot of our neighbors are in public schools … people we are called to love … and an awful lot of people are essentially dying in those public schools.” Keller points out that many kids leave a flawed public school system only to land back in poverty, incapable of getting into college or the job market.

“You can pick them up off the streets 30 years later and help them at the soup kitchen and feel really good about yourself, but if you’d actually made the schools better they might never have landed on the streets. Pragmatically, not even theologically, [helping public schools] is a way to help your community so that it doesn’t need to spend as much money on other social services later.”

“I love Christian schools,” Keller says. “I think they’re competition for public schools in a good way. Just like starting a new church is one of the best ways of renewing the older churches.

But if Christians withdraw; if we tell the rest of the world, we really don’t want to have anything to do with you, if we take that attitude about the public schools, then we’re abandoning the common good.”

Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor, and speaker living in Fort Worth, Texas.

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