I was drinking a hot toddy (is that how it’s spelled? and, yes, I had a bad cold) with a friend in Boston last week, and we were talking about education. I told her that Peter and I have been particularly interested in a fledgling movement in public school education whereby cities have established urban boarding schools. There are ten so far. Charter schools, funded by the public and by private grants, that educate during the day, and during the night. (If you’re interested in reading more about these schools, The New York Times Magazine just profiled one: The Inner-City Prep School Experience.) The SEED Foundation estimates that over one million students in the US live in situations that are so detrimental to learning they need boarding school. It would take 20,000 schools to serve that number of students. In other words, there’s plenty of work to be done.

So we’ve been talking. What if, some day, we were able to take our understanding of boarding school life and apply it to an urban context? I explained all this to my friend in Boston, and then I said, “But I sometimes wonder whether high school is too late. I see the difference that Early Intervention made in Penny’s life, and those are the years before anyone is even in pre-school. Which has made me think strengthening the family is what’s needed.”
I knew as I said it that I was sounding remarkably like James Dobson, who is no hero of mine, but I also know that the research bears out the point. Kids in homes with two parents (no matter what other factors differ) do better in school (see Caitlin Flanagan’s “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” from TIME if you’re interested in more here).
My friend jumped in. “I’d say the problem starts with economic development. If you’re working three jobs, it’s hard to have a stable family. It’s hard to stay together.”
At first, I felt my shoulders slump. But I don’t want to start businesses in the inner-city. I want to help kids.
It was then that I realized what I already knew. The problems in American education, and in families, and in communities, are interrelated. No one person can change them. I can’t come rushing in with my philanthropic ideals and energy and compassion and get to the source of the problems and fix it. It isn’t that simple. And it certainly isn’t all about me.
It was a freeing moment. And it was a reminder that change will come only as various individuals participate in various spheres simultaneously. As my husband teaches, and I write, and someone else starts a clinic, and someone else starts a vegetable garden, and someone else provides capital for a small business.
As a Christian, I have to remember that I am not the Messiah. I am not the Savior. But I am a part of the Body of Christ. One part. It is a privilege to participate in the work of the Spirit in bringing God’s kingdom to earth.
I won’t ever solve the problem. But I can try my best to play a part.
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