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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

Keeping Faith With Our Public Schools


By Rev. Ben Campbell

The public school is a unique institution in American society. Everyone belongs. It is the guarantor of democracy, and it is, in many ways, a spiritual institution.
 
What a radical statement that is! So many “religious” folk in the last several decades have attacked public schools because the schools don’t have public verbal prayer times or because they don’t teach a doctrinally-approved story of creation.

The commitment to provide a solid public education for every single child of God is an amazing and wonderful commitment of this culture, and today our public schools are staffed and supported by some of the most dedicated, and often some of the most spiritual, people in the entire society.

In order to be inclusive, public education cannot be sectarian. But paradoxically, without the dedicated support of deeply religious people, public education will wither and even die.

The division of cities into different political jurisdictions, re-segregation by race, and the segregation of tax funds between affluent and poor districts; the attempt to take over public education as a “profit center” by major national foundations; the critique of public education from the religious right; the decision to punish the schools of the poor by penalizing them as “poor schools”; the continued institution of “high-stakes testing,” which destroys the curriculum and learning atmosphere critical to genuine education and forces people with choice to remove their children from the system—these are some of the movements that have put public education at risk throughout the nation. Between 10 and 15 states are in the process of dismantling their public school systems, calling it “reform.”

Here in Richmond, more than 125 faith communities are working in 23 elementary schools through the Micah Initiative (see box below). Micah’s goal is to support educators and children in creating a genuinely effective and nurturing educational environment. They represent nearly every brand of Christian, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. It’s a public school, so you don’t talk about your religion. You practice it.

Is it more authentic to preach your religion or to practice it? To talk about inclusion in a restricted religious environment or to practice inclusion in a non-sectarian environment?

The environment is a significant part of the education. That’s the reason for school integration, which has been missed in the conversation the past two decades. People have vastly different views of what is happening in this society. Folks who live in a single-income environment where persons of different racial backgrounds salt-and-pepper the room are experiencing a form of inclusiveness. But a trip across the river or down the expressway or across the tracks reveals a stunningly different reality.

Being with a genuine variety of people and being taught about a variety of people is not the same thing. Another culture is something other than a keystroke on a computerized test. We cannot help but be unbalanced in our judgments formed in segregated environments, no matter what the cause of the segregation, no matter what the messaging about segregation.

Public education has been very successful in America–a wonderful place of nurture and engagement binding communities together and elevating the common life. But in the re-segregated center cities it has been underfunded, continually ignored, and abused. If this has finally been recognized (how could it have been missed?) the remedy is proper funding, steady nurture and improvement, deliberate staffing, desegregation where possible, and true dedication. There are no shortcuts to true education, here or anywhere. Education and teaching are faith in action.

Rev. Campbell (bcampbell@richmondhillva.org) is the Pastoral Director of Richmond Hill, an historic monastery in Richmond which today serves as a vehicle for urban outreach, ecumenical fellowship and as a retreat center.

  

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Faith Communities Reach Out in Richmond

The Micah Initiative is a partnership of faith communities joining with the city of Richmond’s public elementary schools to encourage mentoring, tutoring and volunteering in a long list of different ways. Micah volunteers come from a network of more than 125 faith communities in the Richmond area and work in 23 schools, striving to help every child believe, “I am valuable.”

Micah is open to and represented by all faith communities.

Volunteers do everything from tutoring to reading to classrooms to being a “lunch buddy” to one-time projects, such as Read Across America and Career Day. Micah can be a multi-faith community because the focus is on volunteering—the work is not about proselytizing. It is about living out individual faith in action. It is about believing that the students and education are worthy of service.

Every child has potential and deserves encouragement. Volunteers do this and, much like full-time educators, can change a child’s world.

To learn more, visit Micah’s website at www.micahrva.org.


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