Nicole Baker Fulgham of The Expectations Project says Christians have a moral obligation to help improve America's schools. She offers practical advice for parents and churches. - (Photo credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture - http://bit.ly/1m5WkeC)

What Christian parents need to know about America's schools

Nicole Baker Fulgham of The Expectations Project says Christians have a moral obligation to help improve America's schools. She offers practical advice for parents and churches. - (Photo credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture - http://bit.ly/1m5WkeC)

Nicole Baker Fulgham of The Expectations Project says Christians have a moral obligation to help improve America's schools. She offers practical advice for parents and churches. - (Photo credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture - http://bit.ly/1m5WkeC)

The relationship between Christian parents and school systems has been tenuous over the last several decades. As school is now officially back in session, I decided to talk with education expert Nicole Baker Fulgham, founder of The Expectations Project and author of Educating All God's Children and Schools in Crisis. Here she speaks about how Christian parents can prepare themselves and their children for the fall semester.

RNS: Your book Schools in Crisis asserts that most Christian children attend public schools. How can parents prepare their children to engage in these secular contexts while remaining faithful?

Nicole Baker Fulgham is founder of The Expectations Project

Nicole Baker Fulgham is founder of The Expectations Project

NBF: All Christians, even those without school-aged children, have an incredible opportunity to be salt and light in our public schools. From loving and supporting teachers and administrators, to seeking out opportunities to serve under-resourced schools in our communities, each new school year brings with it countless ways to demonstrate God’s love.

For those of us with school-aged children, public schools are often wonderful places for our kids to be exposed to students from a variety of cultures and backgrounds that prepares them to engage in an diverse and interconnected world. Far from undermining their faith, it gives them the opportunity to learn to be better neighbors, thoughtful citizens, and stronger Christians. We can still teach our children core Christian tenets at home, while helping them to respect and understand that everyone they encounter at school may not share those beliefs. Parents engage in wonderfully rich discussions when our kids encounter children whose families have different backgrounds. These conversations can actually serve to reaffirm, rather than undermine, our own faith traditions, particularly as older children have the opportunity to delve more deeply into what Christianity truly means.

RNS: And what of the parents who homeschool or choose private school? How do you counsel parents who are thinking about pulling their children out of public school systems?

NBF: [tweetable]Parents are a child’s first and best teacher and should make the best decisions for their children.[/tweetable] That said, millions of children in our nation’s public schools do not receive a quality education — particularly those growing up in poverty.  Regardless of where we send our own children, Christians have a responsibility to “be our brother and sister’s keeper” and work to ensure all of God’s children receive an education that helps them achieve.   

Book cover courtesy of Baker Books

Book cover courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: Events of the past decades — battles over prayer in public schools, fights over curriculum, separation of church and state — have left many Christians feeling ambivalent about engaging with public schools. How can we overcome this?

NBF: We have to look at the vast inequities in public school, particularly in low-income urban and rural communities, and see these [tweetable]education disparities as a true need that we are called to address.[/tweetable] Regardless of our beliefs about these broader church / state issues, we cannot ignore the fact that God loves all of the children in our public schools. And millions of families living in poverty, many of whom are Christians, have no other option than to send their children to public schools. How can we let our brothers and sisters suffer in a system that, in many cases, reproduces undereducated young people year after year? Do all parents not deserve a chance to help their children succeed? These disparities supersede concerns about curriculum and prayer. We should engage with public schools because we are called to live out Matthew 25 and serve “the least of these.”

RNS: In your book, Educating All God’s Childrenyou talk about the experiences that led to your conviction that the achievement gap is one of the greatest injustices in America today. How does your own story inform your passion for this issue?

NBF: I grew up in Detroit in a working class community where I witnessed educational disparities. My brother and I are two of the three kids from our neighborhood who went to a four-year college. My friends who didn’t attend college weren’t less intelligent or less motivated than me. But they attended our local public high school that had a culture of low academic expectations. I was able to attend another public school across town--an “exam school” that had phenomenal expectations and put me on a path to college.

After college, I joined Teach For America and taught fifth grade in Compton, California — a low-income community near South Central Los Angeles — and saw similar inequities. But as the teacher of 30 fifth graders, something wonderful happened. By engaging families and community members, setting high expectations and supporting students to reach ambitious goals, they significantly outperformed most fifth graders in the district by June.

[tweetable]We cannot discount any child’s God-given potential simply because they are growing up in poverty.[/tweetable]

RNS: How are churches positioned to respond to the academic achievement gap? What are some of the most encouraging examples or models you’ve seen?

NBF: There are more than 300,000 churches in America, compared to about 49,000 high poverty public schools. Churches outnumber public schools 6 to 1 in America. According to recent research from the Barna Group, [tweetable]85 percent of Christians think that churches should be more involved with public school improvement.[/tweetable] More than two-thirds of all Americans agree that people of faith should be given more opportunities to help pubic schools.

Some of the best examples are congregations that have educated their members about the scope of the problem and identified ways to productively engage with public schools — while leaving any broader agenda at the door. These churches have volunteered in high-quality tutoring programs and helped elementary students become excellent readers and mathematicians. Many of these churches have gone on to advocate for necessary systemic changes throughout the entire school district. They’ve called for expanded preschool for poor families, more professional development for teachers and increasing high quality school options for families in poverty. The question becomes more about how the church can best engage.