In 1997 I read Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and my life has never been the same since. That book put words to thoughts and ideas and feelings I had been struggling with as a Christ-follower for several years. It ignited a passion that inspired me to be a voice for the poor and marginalized within Evangelical circles and ultimately led to the founding of Community 4:12.
I can't help but wonder if I will look back on 2012 and the reading of Paul Tough's book How Children Succeed in the same way. My work with under-resourced communities has forced me to care about education, and the glaring inequities between low and high income school districts. As I have watched my husband and many others teach for years in one of those lower income school districts, I have seen the frustration that comes from pouring everything you have into helping children learn, only to be told that your students and your school is not making "adequate yearly progress." The educational reform movement fueled by No Child Left Behind insists that with high quality teachers any student can learn and excel on achievement tests. From my perspective, as a non-educator, the result of that has been a lot of discouraged, disempowered teachers and not a lot of progress on improving student achievement. I have felt in my gut for years that we cannot measure a teacher or a student's success based solely on academic achievement as determined by standardized tests.
And Tough's research and resulting book confirm that. A child's success in school, college, and life is better predicted by certain character traits (such as grit, perseverence, curiosity, optimism, self-control) than by scores on achievement tests. And the research also shows that those character traits, or life-skills, can in fact be taught. So, why is that not the foundation of educational reform in our country? Do we really only care about getting kids through school with a certain academic proficiency, or do we care about creating a generation of kids--rich and poor--who go on to succeed in life?
As I launch my run for School Board for East Aurora District 131, I am beginning a new journey into the realm of advocacy and public policy. Will Tough's book provide me the inspiration and motivation to work again for something I have long believed in my gut to be true? Will I have the grit and perseverence and optimism to fight for the reform needed to set all children in East Aurora up to succeed--not just on achievement tests, but in life?
Many of the moms in my community feel like there is not much they can contribute in this foreign land that they now call home. As undocumented immigrants, they are ineligible to get a driver’s license or a job. As Spanish speakers with limited English and in many cases only an elementary level of education, they don’t believe they can even be of any help as a volunteer at their children’s schools.
Our church has tried to shatter those beliefs and empower those moms to be leaders and mentors. Through a Parent Mentor program we call “Parents United in Action/Padres Unidos en Acción,” we offer training and a small stipend to moms who in exchange volunteer for 10 hours/week at their children’s schools as teacher assistants. Teachers and principals claim the program is a win/win/win for teachers, students, and the moms involved. Some of the benefits they see include:
We started the program at one school with just 5 Mentors, but have grown to 40 Mentors at 7 schools. All funds for stipends and other expenses are paid by the church, because we want to send the message that we care about the people and schools in our community. This is just one of several ways we try to come along-side the teachers in our schools who work tirelessly with very limited funding to educate the kids who have so many odds stacked against them.
One of our Parent Mentors recently shared this about her experience, “It has been an amazing opportunity. I keep learning every day from the children and the teachers I work with. I have learned how important it is to keep in touch with our children’s school and their teachers in order to help them succeed.”
Through this program, I have had the opportunity to hear the struggles and dreams of many of these moms. One of them recently asked me what MY dream is. I shared with her my desire to help people develop skills and find opportunities to discover their gifts and passions so they can fulfill their dreams. And she said with pride, “So really, WE are your dream, right?” “Yes,” I said trying hard not to cry, “you are!”
Over the past 4 years, COMMUNITY has allocated $1.75 million to the work of four missional ministries . . . the NewThing Network, Frontline Ministries in the Philippines, our work in Haiti and Africa, mostly in partnership with World Relief, and the work of Community 4:12. And this weekend, we will host our 5th annual Celebration Generosity.
I love this weekend and the generosity it inpsires. To be honest, it is also a bit stressful, because my entire year's budget is determined by what Community 4:12 receives in designated gifts on this weekend. I've never been particularly concerned about the money . . . God has been amazingly faithful in providing the resources we've needed for the work He's led us to do. But, I'd be lieing if I didn't say I harbor a bit of human anxiety heading into the weekend.
Everything we do, from Gift Marts to tutoring, to having space to run clinics and programs is fueled by the funding that comes in this weekend. Our hope this next year is to continue our various programs and events and to:
In addition to that, three new things we are dreaming about for this year are:
If you attend COMMUNITY, I hope you will join us this weekend and consider supporting the work of Community 4:12, and/or any of the great causes. If you aren't able to join us, you can make a donation on-line; just specify in the comments which Team (Community 4:12, NewThing, Haiti, or Philippines) you'd like your donation to go towards.