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A Bridge Between School and Faith

Young people often have strong ties to faith communities. Can schools leverage those assets?

By Leah Shafer

There’s one resource that educators may not be tapping when it comes to supporting struggling students. Populations at risk of adverse academic outcomes, especially black and Latino students, tend to have strong ties to faith communities.

Religion provides stability, support, and guidance to millions of young people in the United States. Churches, mosques, temples, and other religious centers often take the lead in giving at-risk kids academic assistance, mentorship, and lessons in resilience and self-control. Can schools leverage the support these institutions provide, in order to enhance achievement for children?

Irvin Scott, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), is exploring that question as he leads a new initiative to bring faith and education communities together. This month, he'll gather a small planning committee to begin designing these partnerships, paving the way to a larger Leaders Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE) convening in 2018. Watch a video of Scott introducing these ideas, below.

“To be clear, we’re not talking about pushing faith onto people, and this is not about trying to get one faith to be more predominant than others,” says Scott. “This is about looking for the institutions that support the children who need it most, and improving outcomes for those children.”

Faith leaders are often adept at interacting with children in ways that make children and their families feel comfortable, loved, and special. Teachers and principals know how to explain academic content so children feel confident and determined. Can we weave those strands together?

Strategies for Strong Partnerships

How can we tighten connections between school and faith communities — and strengthen the whole-community support we offer to students? Scott offers several ideas:

Creating partnerships between schools and faith-based organizations: Schools and religious centers need to communicate and collaborate. Schools could make their curricula accessible to churches and mosques that run homework programs — so that, for example, adults helping with homework can ensure students are completing multiplication problems the way their teacher has shown them. If districts let faith organizations know which schools are the lowest performing, faith leaders could organize volunteers to visit these schools and assist with reading help, behavioral support, or extra play and supervision during recess. Schools could also invite those volunteers to attend professional development trainings.

Social-educational capital exchange: Faith leaders are often adept at interacting with children in ways that make children and their families feel comfortable, loved, and special. Teachers and principals understand how to explain academic content so that children feel confident and determined. Leaders and educators could partner up to exchange their expertise and skills, so that children feel cared for in school and capable of achieving academic success outside of it.

Collective advocacy: While religious organizations can’t endorse or oppose specific political candidates, they can capitalize on their collective power to advocate for children. Faith leaders, says Scott, can organize their communities to write to legislators, get involved in policy debates, or invite policymakers to speak to them. Communities and organizations can make it clear to candidates that as voters, they will prioritize equity and increased opportunities for all children.

Supporting educators of faith: For many educators, faith is simply part of their identities. And appropriately, says Scott, “the law requires them not to share in a way that would cause students to feel like they are pushing a faith on them. But I wonder if we could figure out how educators could support one another as a part of their faith?” Educators who derive strength and encouragement from praying for their students might feel better equipped to succeed in the classroom if they have legal and respectful ways to connect with colleagues who feel similarly.

Crossing Boundaries

In a time of potent division in this country, notes Scott, this work may be one small way to begin building communities across boundaries. “As people of faith in the United States, we experience vast differences in what we believe and how we practice those beliefs; however, I am convinced that what we can agree on is that there are too many children in this country who live in poverty, and one of the ways to right that is through learning, growth and achievement,” says Scott. If different faith communities focus on children in need, rather than the differences in their practices or beliefs, those children may have a better chance at success.

“At the heart of all organized religions is love and serving others, grace and peace, excellence and achievement, growth and learning,” says Scott, “and these are the core principles that are also essential to academic achievement.”

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