When Cheryl Burke first walked into the dark lobby of Chimborazo Elementary School, where she had just been appointed principal, she noted the distinct smell of urine. Outside, the playground was littered with "40s," large empty beer bottles, and crack cocaine was stashed in one of the bathrooms. "I just cried," says Burke, recalling that day in 1996.
Sixteen years later, the brightly lit lobby sports two armchairs and a coffee table. Where black asphalt once surrounded the buildings, there is now green grass. Sterile white cinder-block hallways now vibrate with colorful stripes of paint. Over the years, "Miz Burke," as she is known to staff, parents, and students alike, convinced the local faith community to pray for the school, raise funds, and counsel and tutor students. Chimborazo's scores on the state Standard of Learning exam have climbed, and now the number of students declared "proficient" in math and reading hovers around 60 percent.
Still, 88 percent of Chimborazo's students are so poor they receive free or reduced-price lunches; with that poverty comes a litany of challenges for the PK-5 school. As bright and beautiful as Burke has made it, Chimborazo reflects its local community, with all its hurts and all its possibilities.
Many Americans, including many Christians, do not consider urban schools like Chimborazo good enough for their children. Despite federal programs such as George Bush's No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's Race to the Top, American students still struggle to achieve basic academic goals. The nonpartisan Broad Foundation for Education reports that 68 percent of American 8th graders can't read at their grade level, and most will never catch up. Nationally, 70 percent of students graduate from high school, and only 50 percent of African American and Latino students graduate on time.
But in recent years, a growing number of Christians across the country have felt called to take up the educational challenge in their own communities. In many of those communities, including Richmond, Virginia, the tide seems to be turning.
A Dream Realized
Over the past decade, a group of mostly white, middle-class Christian couples have moved into Church Hill, the community served by Chimborazo Elementary School. Unlike most families in Church Hill, these four couples have the financial and social capital to send their kids to private schools or to homeschool. Yet they have chosen otherwise. Building on the firm foundation Principal Burke has laid, they want to help restore a community struggling against generational poverty, and they believe a key component is sending their own children to the community's public school.
Sophie, Luke, Jack, and Chanan are all kindergarteners at Chimborazo, but the story of how they arrived there begins before they were born.
In 1995, most of their parents met as first-year students at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville. They lived together for their final years of college (along with seven other men, including my husband) as an unintentionally diverse cohort: Corey Widmer, a lanky blonde interested in missional theology, and Matt Illian, then a cross-country runner, are white; Danny Avula, a stocky man who is quick to smile, is Indian; and Romesh Wijesooryia, a Jefferson scholar with athletic gifts that earned him a spot on the college's nationally ranked soccer team, is Sri Lankan. As the men's friendships developed, so did their awareness of the ethnic segregation among UVA's Christians. They wanted to figure out a way to bridge those divides.