Group looks at engaging the church in education issues
By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – A group of Presbyterian educators and ministers gathered this week at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to look at how to engage the larger church on the issue of education. The newly formed Educate a Child Round Table met for the first time to organize and determine first steps. Participants came from across the country including California, New York, Tennessee and Michigan.
“This is a grassroots effort, folks within the denomination who are really excited about education and want to be instrumental in getting other Presbyterians involved,” said the Rev. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and round table convener. “This week, we’ve been focused on advocacy and resource, having several conversations about getting people involved and looking at an education covenant that would be given to churches as their stated commitment to education.”
The round table grew out of the Educate a Child initiative launched at the 221st General Assembly in Detroit in 2014. The campaign included both a domestic and international focus.
“One of the questions we are looking at is how to increase the denomination’s presence on the issue of education,” said Johnson. “How do we encourage and excite people to do something tactile and have conversations around immigration or the current state of education? Where do we see advocacy and a connection with the Office of Public Witness?”
Johnson says the round table is a “good mix” of talent and desire for improvement.
“We have everyone from students to retired school administrators, people who have worked in education both within the U.S. and internationally,” said Johnson. “We have one attendee that works with pre-K African-American boys to strengthen reading and learning skills as well as someone in creative arts ministry and active school teachers.”
During lengthy discussion and brainstorming, the group agreed it must not only engage pastors and staff, but find ways to connect with congregations. Lynnette Sparks, associate pastor at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, said communication is key.
“How do we take that leap and have conversations with congregations? How do we reach generations that are connected through rapid communications?” she asked. “If we want this initiative to move forward, we have to think ahead. We must find ways to reach church members and begin a back-and-forth conversation about education.”
Renee Danyo, an elementary school teacher in Detroit, provided a lengthy list of ways the church can help teachers in the classrooms.
“We need financial support to provide materials for teachers. I also need spiritual support, to be prayed for as a church would pray for a missionary,” she said. “I need people advocating at the federal level for education. There needs to be a building of relations between urban and suburban communities. Take the time and get to know the people who are educating your children. We need that support.”
Danyo said people who live in suburban communities don’t realize the harsh conditions that some children and teachers have to face on a daily basis, referring to one teacher who has 54 students in class.
“I go into public schools in the suburbs and they are clean and spotless and have the resources they need to help students succeed,” she said. “I go to urban schools where I see the ceilings coming down and rats coming in. Schools need to be equipped equally.”
Gary Yee served as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California. He believes the church needs to get involved at the urban school level.
“The people attending and working in urban schools are underappreciated,” he said. “Teachers work with the students who have the greatest need. If churches made connections with those teachers, we would reach a million children.”
The round table began building the foundation for an Educate a Child Congregation Covenant. Basics would include tutoring local children, providing backpacks of supplies for both children and teachers, getting involved in the local school boards and much more.
Several group members also expressed a need for more diversity on the round table.
“We need the Hispanic voice at the table, as well as those working with immigrants/refugees. We also need to capture the parent and children voices,” said Dr. Rosalyn McKeown-Ice, a former high school teacher and current university educator from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “We also need teachers at every level — elementary, middle and high school — because the needs are slightly different as the student progresses. We also need teachers working with special-education students.”
Johnson believes the passion and commitment from round table participants will make a difference in months and years to come.
“We are trying to accept Jesus’ simple commandment to take care of his children. We have this image of Jesus picking up the child and saying to the disciples that this is his priority,” said Johnson. “We are called to engage with and see the image of God in young people. We need to use what we have to be true child advocates as we look at ways to help those who are falling through the cracks of society.”
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