[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1587433273″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51FikD3caoL.jpg” width=”216″ alt=”Nicole Baker Fulgham” ]Addressing Educational Disparities.
A Feature Review of
Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids
Nicole Baker Fulgham
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2013
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Reviewed by David Swanson.
There will be forty-nine fewer public schools in Chicago when fall rolls around in a few months. These shuttered neighborhood schools were casualties in the ongoing war of education reform. Pensions, property taxes, charter schools, teachers unions, segregated neighborhoods, and city government all have their places in this complicated war. The children have a place too; more often than not, they are the victims.
As a Christian I watched the back and forth leading up to the school closings with one specific question in mind: How do individual Christians and local congregations respond to the education crisis in my city and around the country? If there is any doubt that public education is in crisis then Nicole Baker Fulgham’s book, Educating All God’s Children, should convince the most dubious skeptic. Early on she outlines the inequities most of us have become accustomed to: far greater percentages of Asian American and White students gradate high school in four years than do African American and Hispanic/Latino students; noticeably fewer African American forth-graders preform basic math skills compared with White students. Many of us have heard these sorts of statics often enough that we no longer really hear them; Educating All God’s Children makes sure we listen closely while beginning to imagine a different future.
It is the author’s great accomplishment that her book is accessible, informative, and – no small success given the topic – enjoyable to read. Take, for example, the second chapter that addresses the causes of the current education crisis. Fulgham identifies three major categories that impact student achievement: poverty; race, culture, and language; parents and families. Within these broad categories we find historical nuance, personal anecdotes (the author’s education within Detroit’s schools in the 70’s, teaching in Compton in the 90’s, and more recent advocacy work all figure helpfully throughout the book), and concise ways of understanding complex issues.
Another of the author’s achievements is the hope that fills the pages despite the grim statistics and disappointing history that she honestly acknowledges. About the often-touchy causes of education inequalities, she writes, “While many communities still wrestle with the residue of historical racism or negative stereotypes due to lack of cross-cultural understanding, at its best the church can provide a wonderful example of cross-cultural understanding and courageous leadership. Christians truly have the opportunity to play a role in helping to resolve some of the lingering racial insensitivity and injustices as we work for equity in public schools.”
But, of course, our churches are often not at our best when it comes to cross-cultural understanding or courageous leadership, a point the author makes in a later chapter about the forced integration of public schools in the late 1950’s. “[A] funny thing happened with public schools were force to admit African American children alongside White students. The number of Christian schools grew. This phenomenon was particularly rampant in the South, where desegregation met some of its strongest resistance. Some scholars go so far as to assert that Christians created private schools in direct response to mandatory desegregation.”
Despite this history and the ongoing disparities, Fulgham is hopeful. She is hopeful because “urban faith communities” have long seen and experienced the education gap and have long been at work to bridge it. She’s also hopeful because this awareness has begun to spread beyond faith communities of color to majority culture churches and Christians. She writes movingly of Pastor Bill Hybels of the well-known mega-church, Willow Creek Community Church, and his decision to feature the founder of Teach for America at the massive Global Leadership Summit. With this one decision, Pastor Hybels put educational disparities on the radar for hundreds of thousands of pastors and leaders, many who came from communities that were blissfully unaware of public education’s injustices.
Most readers of Educating All God’s Children won’t have Pastor Hybels’ influence or the resources of Willow Creek so the book also features many stories of ordinary teachers, students, and recently awakened advocates. Fulgham also incudes a substantial resource list for those interested in pursuing education reform.
Our small, city church recently cancelled our Sunday worship service and walked two block north to the local elementary school. We were met by the principal and her children who had come early to prepare for our arrival. We spent the next few hours cleaning, gardening, and organizing classrooms. Before we began working the principal told us about her school, including the many challenges she and her staff face daily. Later, during our potluck lunch, church members shared about their experience and many wondered about our next steps. How can our young congregation helpfully and affectively support this school and its students? Thanks to Nicole Baker Fulgham’s Educating All God’s Children, we have some wise direction for the weeks and years to come.
David Swanson is a pastor on Chicago’s South Side and blogs regularly at davidswanson.wordpress.com.