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A radical solution for inner city illiteracy and poverty

Young President Lincoln, who had less than one year of formal schooling, was motivated to learn on his own. Self-taught Abraham Lincoln would have excelled in our inner-city schools— but young Abraham Lincoln was an exception.

Paul Swamidass
Courtesy of Paul Swamidass

By all accounts, as a nation, we have given up on inner-city illiteracy and poverty. This is the third in a series of editorials, where I address American inner-city illiteracy and poverty. This stubborn problem, which has quietly simmered for decades, is not being addressed as a national priority. Therefore, this problem is not going away, while inner city children and parents are left abandoned to stare at a bleak future defined by their illiteracy and poverty, one generation after another.

Missing parent-child partnership

An effective parent-child partnership is essential for any child to finish and excel in school—unless of course you are Abe Lincoln! When children perform poorly in school, parental involvement helps the child get through schoolwork and perform to the best of his/her abilities. A sample of parental role in a child’s successful education are:

1.  Set goals for the child regarding school performance and expect the child to meet or exceed it,

2.  Ensure the child devotes time to do schoolwork,

3.  Skillfully motivate the child employing positive and negative incentives at home and elevate the child’s expectations,

4.  Ensure the child is not distracted from school or schoolwork,

5.  Ensure the child is not influenced by “friends” to disregard schoolwork, belittle schoolwork, and set low expectations for school performance, and

6.  Teach the child as needed and help the child complete schoolwork (if the parents are literate).

Church history: Successfully educating illiterates

Worldwide, over the last 500+ years, missionaries, upon arriving at mission fields in Asia, Africa, and other continents/islands were confronted with illiteracy and poverty. With financial support from churches back home, they promptly responded by erecting church-based schools and offered free education to local children. Literacy had generational impact.

In south India, my grandparents and perhaps their ancestors benefited from free education in mission schools in the 19th century. My paternal grandfather, finished high school in a church-based school for free, went on to graduate from the church’s school of theology before becoming an ordained minister and served in many churches until his death in 1932 in his fifties.

My mother, who lost her mother at age 1, was educated from 1928-1933 for free in a boarding school for girls founded by English missionaries way back in 1858 (Sara Tucker School for girls). The explicit goal of the school was to eradicate illiteracy among girls and women in that part of the world in the 19th Century.

The challenge: Tuition-less church schools

Today, tuition-based church-schools attract only a very tiny and negligible percentage of students in American inner cities. This is because tuition-based church-schools are not an affordable option for the poor in inner cities — consequently, church-schools need to be tuition-less to attract public school children, who are falling way behind in school.

After decades of illiteracy and poverty in inner cities, should American churches treat inner cities like a foreign mission field, where missionaries built and ran tuition-less church-schools for the illiterate and the poor? Yes.

Tuition-less church-schools’ mandate needs to be:

1.  Educate poor inner-city children in a loving and caring environment to deliver education, the gospel, and basic Bible education,

2.  Offer help with schoolwork to children and their parents after school hours,

3.  Minister to parental groups outside school hours to help build a parent-child relationship at home to enable their children to excel at school,

4.  Make the gospel of Jesus Christ known to the parents,

5.  Operate the school with donated funds from individual donors, foundations, and churches from around the country,

6.  Accept voluntary donations from parents of students, who can afford it, and

7.  If a parent or child is dissatisfied with the school, let them return to the public school.

Tuition-less church schools to require parents’ commitment

Public schools do not come to the rescue of the parent and child outside the school hours, when the child is failing in schoolwork; this is evident in our inner cities.

In contrast, the proposed tuition-less church-schools are to be committed to enable parent-teacher groups to meet periodically to encourage and enable parents to provide appropriate support for their children to excel at school. Unskilled parents, who are unable to partner with their child to motivate the child to excel in school, would have the opportunity to hear and learn from other parents/teachers through periodically required meetings of parents/teachers in groups. Parents unwilling to make a commitment to participate in required after-school efforts to help their struggling children are unfit for this type of school.

Test driving a model tuition-less school

Establishing a model tuition-less church-school with about 100 students (K-6) would help convince the doubters — it would also enable us to “test drive” a tuition-less church-school before launching more such schools. A model tuition-less church-school can be established by gifts, donations, and American church offerings targeted for this purpose; this school need not cost as much as our public schools in inner cities (public schools cost $16,000 per child in Baltimore).

The proposed tuition-less church schools are likely to occupy a special niche among inner city schools without ever replacing all public schools. Yet these tuition-less church-schools are intended to influence and make a dramatic difference in as many students and parents as feasible.

One pastor, who runs a tuition-based church school in inner city Philadelphia, recognizes the value of a tuition-less church-school — he has about 20+ years of experience in running a tuition-based inner-city church-school. He welcomes the idea saying, “Tuition-less church schools will help mothers and fathers to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ,” and he adds, “We are losing rapidly our inner-city youth to crime.” Speaking to him, I sense there is an urgent spiritual and physical need in inner cities that only tuition-less church-schools can address.

If the idea of tuition-less church-schools for inner cities sounds radical to you, consider such schools in the context of David Platt’s “Radical” Christianity.

Paul Swamidass, PhD, is Professor Emeritus, Harbert College of Business, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA. After a total of 33 years of teaching and publishing as a business management professor, he retired from Auburn University in 2016 after teaching there for 24 years. His newest book is, Greater Things: The Qualifications of a Biblical Leader, Vide Press, 2020. He and his wife Nimmi worship at Lakeview Baptist Church, Auburn, AL.  His Facebook page is here. 

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