When Don Coleman (above) talks about being elected chair of the school board in Richmond, Virginia, he doesn't mention personal agendas or his leadership skills as a local pastor. He talks about his role as a public servant and how Jesus served the poor and oppressed.
Coleman grew up in Richmond and went to the schools he now represents. A foster kid, he never imagined he'd one day be trying to help kids like him. Coleman tries to communicate to young people that no matter the challenges, they can serve their community. "I know where I came from and I know what I'm saying is reality, because I am the reality," Coleman told us.
Coleman was elected to Richmond's school board in 2008, and two weeks ago was voted its chairman 9-0. He talks passionately about working with the school board, the city council, and Mayor Dwight C. Jones to give Richmond public school kids a brighter future. But he's also realistic about the challenges they face: 79 percent of Richmond's 24,000 students receive free or reduced price lunches and belong to the 20 percent of Richmond residents living in poverty. A third of Richmond students don't attend its public schools; those who can afford private school go elsewhere. Many of the students who stay come from broken families that are unable to adequately support them.
Coleman believes the answer to that brokenness is for other families and community members to come around those young people. He's seen the power of such community involvement firsthand: He sat beside a young woman, a high school valedictorian, the day she received a large college scholarship at an awards ceremony. Her family wasn't there to watch her accept the award, because they were in court facing murder charges. A family from Coleman's church had supported the young woman for years, and today she is an honors student in a four-year college.
Another local church family took under their wing a young man whose parents had abandoned him to his grandmother after learning that he had birth defects that would result in severe learning disabilities. When the family learned that Richmond Public Schools had partnered with the State of Virginia to start a charter school for students with disabilities, they helped the student navigate the application process and lottery for entrance. Today, the young man is thriving at the charter school, has been selected for a job training program, and shows up at Coleman's church, East End Fellowship, every Sunday.
Coleman dreams of a time when Richmond's schools are places where students and teachers alike want to be. He's working with the school board on an International Baccalaureate youth program (one of the highest levels of education in the country for youth) for one of Richmond's elementary schools, a project that has required retraining all of the teachers in the school and recruiting a parent task force to raise funds. Coleman hopes to complete the project by the end of his term.
"To have a school in the inner city using that methodology is a big deal," Coleman says. "It raises the bar for other schools. Suddenly there's a school in Richmond that people want their kids to go to."
Coleman hopes that the school will draw families into the community, and that having those families involved will in turn empower the community. He also hopes to see more schools and local churches partnering, and more private and public schools sharing resources. He'd like to see alternative, in-school detention options rather than suspension and expulsion, which typically mean students are out on the street instead. Most of all, he'd like to see more Christians get involved in serving public schools.
"As a community we have to do a better job of rescuing these young people. It isn't their fault that they're in a challenging situation."
Coleman tells the story of a Richmond church that rents school space. When the church initially offered to volunteer at the school, they were turned down. But whenever they saw a service opportunity, they stepped up. Eventually the superintendent started asking the church for help. Then one day the PTA president came to the pastor asking if they could provide coffee and donuts for the church to show their appreciation.
Coleman's dream is that every one of the 48 Richmond schools would have a church that serves them, asking nothing in return, until the school invites them to be a part of what they're doing.
"All around the country, education is one of the greatest open doors for urban missions," Coleman says. "We preach the gospel with our lives. We don't fight over prayer. We recognize that we're living out the principles of the gospel, and we create opportunities where we can share the gospel. I'm putting out a call to the churches to get involved on school boards, for churches to adopt schools."
Nathan Clarke is film director for This Is Our City, and is currently working on a film series about Richmond's natural landscapes. Laura Joyce Davis is an award-winning author based in Oakland, California. Read more at LauraJoyceDavis.com.