Why Schools?

"PUBLIC EDUCATION ... IT ISN'T FREE ANYMORE." The words scrolled dramatically across the large screen lowered in the front of the darkened elementary school multipurpose room. It was Back to School night 2010—our first ever in our kids' new school after moving to Los Angeles from Portland, Oregon. I was surprised when I read the words, but recognized the truth in them.

After a silent, meaningful pause, the video suddenly pulsed with upbeat music and images of waving happy children, as it described the essential programs that the school's PTA funds provided our kids' new school: library, PE, art, music, a new computer lab loaded with iMacs. All of the things that you would want for your children's school.

When the lights came back up, the PTA President gave her earnest appeal: "To keep our school great and to continue to provide these important services for our children, we ask families for a $530 contribution for each child that you have attending here." A PowerPoint behind her showed the math: $300,000 of annual PTA support to the school, divided by the number of students attending, equaled $530 per child.

I smiled to myself. This was why we had moved to this part of the LA area--for the great public schools. But public education...it isn't free anymore.

Back in our hometown of Portland, my job for the previous two years had been to work at Roosevelt High School, a struggling, under-served school in North Portland. As Outreach Director at suburban SouthLake Church, I coordinated the church's support for the school in the form of volunteers, clothing and food donations, and community-building events, among numerous other programs.

Other than seven or eight committed boosters and alumni, the school had truly lacked outside community support before God directed SouthLake's steps that way. Families were disengaged from school life for countless reasons—language barriers, cultural differences, parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet or heading a single-parent household. Local businesses stopped being engaged when there was no longer anyone available to ask for or facilitate their help. Eventually, community disengagement simply became the status quo.

I didn't realize just how disengaged Roosevelt was from any support community until a month or two after I had started working there. Speaking with an RHS administrator, I suggested to him that perhaps I should connect with Roosevelt's PTA president about volunteer coordination at the school. There was a long pause and confused look in response, then he replied, "You don't seem to understand; SouthLake is Roosevelt's PTA. There is no other."

While the realities for these two schools are such different ones, a truth for all public schools lies in both of their stories: schools cannot do it alone.

Today, the responsibilities on the shoulders of public educators encompass far more than just teaching academics to their students. Schools additionally need to help students with many non-academic issues (e.g. hunger and other problems that accompany poverty), making it a challenge for them to manage with the limited resources available to them.

What churches can bring to public schools, beyond material support, is the important "social capital" that comes with an engaged support community—volunteers, know-how, connections, lay-leadership, encouragement, and the disparate resources available among individual church members.

Superintendent of Public Schools in Portland, Carole Smith, has requested a church partner for every one of the 85+ schools in her district, because she has seen the benefit that such partnerships can bring. In much of the country, the door is wide open for churches to walk in and make a difference in the lives of the children in their communities by partnering with their local public schools.

At the end of the day, we believe that churches should serve and support public schools, because despite their best efforts, the people educating our nation's children cannot do it alone. And more than anything—kids matter.

—Kristine Sommer