In 1997 I left pastoral ministry and turned my interests and talents to education. While I was working in higher education, I did not teach the typical 18-22 year old college student; instead my students were adults who had decided later in life to return to college to get their bachelor’s degree. In many cases they had started out on the traditional track years before, only to be derailed by a lack of finances, family crises, or personal issues; they dropped out, and entered the working world.
The more I got to know these adult students the more I realized three things. First, very often the earlier problems these students faced were related to issues of poor K-12 education, family history, and poverty. Second, I realized that getting a college degree was one of the few legitimate roads available to adults seeking to rise out of poverty. Third, I came to see that adult academic success had generational implications, as often their academic pursuits set an example for their children and grandchildren, who in turn pursued their college degree. I realized we were not just educating individuals, we were changing families and perhaps communities.
Convinced of these insights, I returned to school and earned a doctorate in adult education with a view toward helping craft programs that could serve whole communities beset by poverty and create quality education programs that could transform those communities. I joined the Community Partners of West Philadelphia high school, one of the schools with the lowest test scores in the city. I helped in the formation of the Eastern University Academic Charter School, and I served as a tutor for adults learning to read. Just this month I joined the board of the Philadelphia Mennonite High School.
The most exciting opportunity along these lines was my work with a program called Eastern in the City (EIC). This innovative program was developed by my university to provide a pathway for under-prepared urban high school graduates into college success; unfortunately after only three years the program was discontinued. Nonetheless, two weeks ago, I had the joy of seeing 10 of my former EIC students earn their bachelor’s degree. They ranged in age from early 20’s to mid 60’s (Two of them, Shelita Jackson and Rayna Norris are pictured above), and all of them credit EIC with getting them started on their road to a college degree. A few are even continuing on toward graduate work.
All the demographic data on high school students today, indicate that the college students of tomorrow will look and think a lot differently than the college students of the past. Not only will they be more racially and ethnically diverse, but they will be economically poorer, and academically less prepared. Many of them will not speak English as their first language, and they will have cultural perspectives far different than the Western mindset of our current educational system. Thus, colleges like mine can not continue to do business as usual if they are to effectively educate the next generation.
One response that colleges are making is to work harder to recruit the diminishing numbers those upper middle class kids from private and elite public schools. The other response is to work for educational justice. Everyone from President Obama to the teacher in the classroom to the kid on the street knows that our educational system is broken. Education is one of the strongest antidotes against violence, drug abuse and crime, yet we pour money in to prisons and let the schools fester. Vast inequities exist in per pupil funding between poor rural and urban districts on the one hand, and wealthy suburbs on the other. Exciting experiments like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone (one of Obama’s favorites) and Big Picture schools provide hope, but the fact is addressing this problem must occur on all levels. Schools must be safe place, parents must support and encourage their students, teachers must be adequately trained, and students need to apply themselves. Colleges need to provide bridges that help under-prepared students succeed at the college level, and must offer their expertise to their communities. Government must abandon the archaic property tax system for funding public education, and make education as much a state and national priority as fighting wars overseas and terrorism at home.
John Dewey, the seminal American educational thinker, contended that education should be the vehicle for shaping the character of students so that they could become responsible and productive citizens. If that is so, then we as a nation, and particular we who as educators, have failed to live up to our calling. Pointing fingers at others for not doing their part is a waste of time; there is enough work and sufficient blame to go around for everyone. The challenge is that we as educators, institutions, community leaders and citizens must step up and create opportunities for all students, young and old, rich and poor, white, black, brown, red and yellow, to gain the skills and the knowledge necessary to live fruitful and productive lives. Until we have done so, there will be no educational justice and our work is not done.