Public education is often characterized by evangelicals as a wasteland, destitute of sound values and dominated by forces hostile to Christianity. Without question, our nation's schools are in the grip of powerful negative forces — the breakdown of families and neighborhoods, escalating violence, lowered academic standards, and the pervasive lack of sound ethical and moral values.
Fault-finding and doomsaying come easily. But before the church turns its back on public schools, we need to take a look at the human face of public education. In my work with Christian Educators Association International, I am privileged to meet some of the world's most dedicated servants of Christ. Let me introduce you to three who exemplify the call to public education:
Mark Nakamura is an elementary school teacher in San Luis Obispo, California. During his 16 years of teaching, Mark never joined a teacher's union because of personal convictions. His beliefs were not an issue until August 1995, when membership in the National Education Association (NEA) became mandatory in his district.
Mark requested religious exemption from joining the NEA and the California Teachers Association (CTA). He cited issues such as the NEA's support for the celebration of Lesbian and Gay History Month. He asked that his union fees be sent to the Salvation Army. His request was denied.
After a year of struggle, culminating in a threat of litigation by the Rutherford Institute, a Christian legal defense organization, the CTA granted Mark's request.
Rutherford's help spared Mark from great financial expense, but Mark's yearlong struggle was costly in terms of time and energy. "Obviously, CTA is making it so hard for people that they just give up."
CEAI helped Mark stand up for his convictions by providing access to legal counsel, prayer support, and professional liability insurance, once available only through union membership.
Al Eads has been a public educator for over 30 years. In 1994, he was named South Carolina Superintendent of the Year, in part as the result of his outstanding work in Hampton County, a rural school district. When Al took the helm in 1988, the district was seriously impaired due to lack of funds, inadequate family support of educational goals, and a 30 percent annual turnover in personnel.
Recognizing the severity of the situation, Al sent up endless "flare prayers" and enlisted prayer support from his church. Then he championed a parenting program and aggressive staff development. He went to work to bring computers to Hampton's schools. His efforts paid off, and the district is now flourishing.
Now Al Eads is lending his support to a new School Administrators Network organized by CEAI, under the leadership of Richard Deckard. He sees it as a means of providing administrators with legal advice and spiritual uplift.
Clara Ruffin teaches at Carmen Arace Middle School in Bloomfield, Conn. A teacher for over 20 years, Clara is well acquainted with the problems of at-risk students, gang activity, and violence common to urban schools and neighborhoods.
Out of concern for troubled children and their families, she and her husband established a community outreach ministry in their home. Clara uses her creativity and writing talents to motivate students and fellow educators.
She said that students' "I can't" attitudes became so overwhelming last year, even she was infected. Recognizing the problem, she asked God to inspire her with a solution. The result was an elaborate mock funeral for "I Can't," which impacted the whole student body and received coverage in local newspapers.
Clara knows this victory made a difference in many students lives. But the life-and-death struggle for city children is never over; it is a battle she faces anew every day. She's strengthened for service on the front lines by joining with other Christian teachers in a supportive local chapter of CEAI.
These are some of the estimated 600,000 Christian educators who can't walk away from public education. With more than 90 percent of our nation's students in the public school system, they see the classroom as the most strategic point of Christian service in America. The degree of their effectiveness is in direct relation to the support of the local church.
Unfortunately, some churches are hostile or apathetic to public education. Many Christian leaders, in a sincere effort to warn believers about the anti-religious bias and secularism of state schools, have attacked public education. A growing number of churches have established their own schools, or encouraged parents to home school their children. While these are viable alternatives for some families, there remains an enormous need for salt and light on public school campuses.
Some congregations have been convinced that there is an impenetrable wall between the church and state operated schools. This is a misconception fueled by secular humanists who would like to remove all religious expression from the public square. It is strengthened by misinterpretations of court rulings and overreaction among school administrators.
In the past year, significant progress has been made in establishing that schools are not religious-free zones. There is a growing awareness that the future of our children depends on cooperation between schools, parents, and community leaders, including ministers. A growing number of national organizations, both secular and religious, advocate the restoration of core values — values the church is best equipped to model and promote. In this season of increased openness, your church can make a difference in local public schools.
Prayerfully consider the following ways in which your congregation can be a catalyst for improvement in the lives of students, parents, and educators.
1. Set aside time to pray regularly for public schools. Possible approaches include:
• Identifying and interceding for each Christian public school teacher in the congregation.
• Identifying and interceding for each public school student.
• Selecting a particular local school as a "prayer target."
• Praying for local school board members, superintendents, and administrators.
2. Begin each school year by recognizing Christian educators committed to serve Christ in the public schools. Publicly commission the teachers for the task to which God has called them. This emphasizes the significance of their calling to the congregation and the teachers. CEAI promotes the celebration of Educators Sunday on the second weekend in September and is an important part of the church calendar in many congregations.
3. Cooperate with other community churches to develop a Christian Released Time Education program. Every state in the country grants permission through local school boards to release students during the school day for religious instruction. Surprisingly, churches seldom use this opportunity for ministry.
4. Set up a tutorial program after school, either independently or in cooperation with other churches. Nearly 50 percent of students go home to an empty house; in many neighborhoods, the percentage is higher. A tutorial program gives volunteers an opportunity to build supportive relationships with students.
5. Sponsor an after-school program for latchkey children. If organized and administered properly, public schools will be cooperative.
6. Encourage Christian young people to enter the teaching field and teachers who choose to serve in public schools. Increasing the number of committed Christian educators in public schools will expose Judeo-Christian values to students in their classrooms.
7. Assist parents in dealing with teachers and administrators. By hosting seminars, special worship services, and panel discussions, the local church can provide a forum for exploring educational issues from a biblical perspective, and help parents learn how to assist their children in public school.
8. Support school campus ministries. Invite ministry leaders to share their work with the congregation.
9. Develop an on-going program to train young people as active witnesses for Christ at school. Provide opportunity to role-play typical encounters and potential responses. Encourage and assist students in organizing prayer and Bible study groups on their campuses under the Equal Access Law as part of your outreach program.
10. A Sunday School class, men's fellowship, or women's group might target a school as a project. Classroom volunteers, chaperons, and library or lunchroom assistants are needed.
11. Provide a representative to the local school board. Ninety percent of our young people attend public schools; we need to know firsthand what is happening to them there. Develop a public identity as a group that seeks the total good of the school. This will increase your credibility should problems or conflicts arise.
12. Pastors, attempt to develop relationships with area principals. Express your desire to support sound educational goals and build common ground between home, school, and church. Help Christian administrators connect with peers who share their world view through CEAI's School Administrators Network.
Through prayer and involvement, the church earns the right to be heard and provides godly, caring role models. In this way, the salt and light of the gospel is taken out into the world where it can do its work of moral preservation.
For more information about how to positively impact public education, contact Christian Educators Association International, PO Box 41300, Pasadena, CA 91114, (888) 551-0005, FAX (818) 798-2346, e-mail email@example.com. Extensive educational resources are available, including free information packets on Christian Educators Sunday and the CEAI Adopt-a-School Program.
Teachers by Design
Three years ago, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, launched a program to promote and encourage "teachers of faith." Under the direction of Nan Ramey, the Teacher by Design program has expanded from a fall celebration to a year-round outreach.
The group kicked off the 1996-97 school year by inviting educators to attend a dinner meeting. Each area pastor was encouraged to send a representative with a heart for students and teachers. Every educator present received an appreciation gift. Teachers in Focus magazine (published by Focus on the Family) and materials on involvement in public education were made available to those attending. Richard Deckard of Christian Educators Association International encouraged the group to join with teachers and administrators across the nation in a commitment to Christ-likeness in the classroom.
First Baptist's Teachers by Design program has five goals for this school year:
To place informational bulletin boards in 75 schools. In a non-threatening, non-intrusive way, these displays inform educators about important programs such as True Love Waits and See You at the Pole. The cost of each bulletin board is provided through a $20 donation by concerned individuals. Notices are posted by a volunteer on the school staff.
1. To produce four newsletters encouraging educators in their pursuit of excellence.
2. To develop three workshops on character building.
3. To offer teachers prayer support and compassion as they live out their faith on a daily basis.
4. To inform teachers of biblical principles and precepts that ensure success in their careers and daily lives.
For more information about the Teacher by Design program, write to Nan Ramey at PO Box 23401 Apple Way, Jacksonville, Fl. 32241.