In Some Poor Neighborhoods, Schools Do Far More Than Educate

In communities rapt with violence and poverty, what role does education play? Can a school be all things to all students? Unfortunately for the hungry, homeless, and helpless, these questions have yet to rise to the national level of debate in the current election cycle. Education has not been a prominent talking point for presumptive candidates Clinton and Trump, and there is no indication from their campaign websites that it will become one. Nevertheless, how to advance educational opportunities for all is a matter of public justice that must be addressed.

A recent New York Times piece highlights Public School 188 in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, which attempts to execute a “full service community school model.” It must do so because a shocking 40% of its students are homeless, most live in poverty, an estimated 80% require some type of counseling, and only 9% of students are proficient in English to state standards. Students are counseled, given gifts on their birthdays, and afforded basic healthcare when necessary. The school’s principal, Suany Ramos, says, “They call me the beggar principal. Everywhere we go, I say, ‘I need, I need, I need for my families.’” Within this context, identifying, measuring, and pursuing success remains a hurdle for educators. The PS 188 model certainly serves a purpose not being met by other institutions in the community, but it is full service by necessity, not by choice.

The National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that 45% of children live in low-income families that struggle to cover basic expenses. Following the economic crisis in 2008, the U.S. has consistently been rankedamong developed countries as the worst for child poverty. Given this socioeconomic condition of children in America, the question of who bears responsibility for the education of our nation’s youth remains more relevant than ever. The Center for Public Justice takes the position that “parents bear the primary responsibility for the nurture and education of their children,” and that the government should help parents meet these responsibilities through equitable support and mandate.

Internationally, the United Nations has taken the position that a school should cultivate and advance a “learning community” that links pedagogic, economic, and socio-economic dimensions. Ultimately, it is the government who is the “duty bearer” when it comes to ensuring equal access to basic, quality education for children; however, it is the parents, guardians, and communities who also bear responsibility to ensure equitable and just access to education. But what can be said about the role of the community or the church in advancing education?

Within this context, the classroom becomes something to be managed as opposed to an environment that cultivates learning.

World Vision suggests that by spending the majority of its time and resources attracting adult members, the role of the church in educating today’s youth has been unnecessarily downsized. According to the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU), the average church budget spends 82% on personnel, building, and administrative expenses. Conversely, just 3% of the average church budget is spent on children and youth programs. Granted, these averages may vary widely depending on geography, ethnicity, and administrative nuances such as church property, but this certainly provides a disproportionate image of the margin that most churches might have in contributing to the education gap. As a recent study claims, the education achievement gap has grown wider than ever. The Stanford University study relates the income achievement gap to four causes: 1) rising income inequality, 2) Differential investment in children’s cognitive development, 3) changes in the relationship among family income, family socioeconomic characteristics, and children’s achievement, and 4) increased segregation by income. Are these not needs the local church could meet?

Instead of allowing the taxpayer to address such public justice short comings, the local church should reexamine its budget to address these needs. To start, afterschool programs could be offered for students in the district. A church-funded afterschool program could create the margin a parent or guardian needs to work or look for housing. Homeless students could feel safe, hungry students could feel full, and hopeless students could see faith in action. A friend of mine who is a public educator in Virginia recently lamented, “My job requires me to play parent, friend, and teacher.” He is not able to simply focus on sound teaching when students have behavioral issues related to poor or zero parenting, come to school hungry, or are distracted by circumstances at home. Within this context, the classroom becomes something to be managed as opposed to an environment that cultivates learning.

So the question remains: does a community model of schooling alleviate some of these in-class “burdens,” or does it add to the many roles a teacher may already be playing? And, how can a community model be communal when the whole community is not involved? Either way, learning about PS 188 left me with more questions than answers. Unfortunately for our nation’s students, I am not confident these questions will even be considered in this year’s election. A school may not be able to be all things to all students, but our communities should definitely try. 

-Jeremy Taylor serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government. He is a Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), a Pacific Forum Young Leader with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is currently pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership . You can follow him on Twitter @jerdavtay.