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The New School Choice Agenda

The New School Choice Agenda

Why Christians in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere are choosing to send their children to struggling public schools.

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.


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Displaying 1–5 of 10 comments

Ram Prakash

April 28, 2012  1:42am


Erica Hunt

April 19, 2012  10:31pm

Our 3 daughters attend a public school in the urban neighborhood we moved into 10 years ago. Our eldest is finishing up 6th grade this spring. They have always been very much in the cultural minority. The friendships, experiences and yes, the challenges, have enriched our family's faith and allowed the girls to experience the Kingdom in a unique way. We talk about being salt and light...about hope. We spend a lot of time praying for peace in the homes and hearts of classmates. I believe families need to make the best choice for them, but I wonder how many Christians might be influenced by fear in this decision process. Our girls are healthy in every way - they are not suffering emotionally or spiritually from their school environment. We very much believe the diversity and broadened view has actually strengthened them in some exciting ways. God is good, all the time, everywhere!

Corey Widmer

April 19, 2012  3:41pm

In response to Ted Hewlett's comment: "Children are to nurture, not for sending into potentially harmful situations as deputy missionaries." The nurturing of our children does not exclude mission; indeed, the gospel necessities it. If while nurturing my child I do not give her a sense of her new call in Christ to participate as a citizen in his sometimes dangerous Kingdom, into what worldview am I nurturing her? If we are seeking to model our parenting on God's own perfect role as parent, then consider that God the Father sent his own Son into a"potentially harmful situation as a deputy missionary."

Annie Kirkby

April 15, 2012  10:51am

There may be an unforseen educational benefit for these families. At least for the family in California, their children will have a huge advantage when seeking admission at the University of California, which places a premium on "Excellence in the Local Context". My high-school senior son was turned down at all 4 of the UC campuses he applied to this year, and I'm sort of wishing we had sent him to a different kind of high school.

Pia Hugo

April 13, 2012  1:21pm

I've been a public HS teacher here in L.A. for 15 years. My 3 kids all went to public schools in the area and are highly intelligent and educated (my youngest is currently studying at Cornell U. on a scholarship) while loving God with all their hearts, souls, minds and spirits. Over the years, they've learned what to embrace, reject, and keep pondering on--based on what they've been taught--and they are, what I like to call, Christian critical thinkers. I also work with the local youth pastors in my area, bringing unsaved and saved kids regularly to their churches, while mentoring them at school as the Christian Club adviser. While my administrators remain quite hostile to Christian activities being conducted on campus, the other Christian teachers and I have found ways to work around them. If not for parents, teachers and pastors who believe in supporting their local public schools--like the ones in this article--so many more students in my area would be utterly lost and hopeless.


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