Churches and education

In the middle of the 18th century, before the Revolutionary War, business leaders, newspaper editors and clergy persons in England began to form Sunday schools. The schools were primarily for working children, who were employed in factories and who had little opportunities to learn to read or the basics of arithmetic. Soon Sunday schools were being organized for children who were growing up in slums. These schools were promoted as a solution to youth crime. This was more than a century before public schools were provided for children.

During my working career, I often reminded people of this bit of history when we discussed Christian education programs in the churches I served. There was a time when it was assumed that the education of the children of the church was the responsibility of parents and families. Sunday schools were organized, not to teach our own children, but rather as mission projects aimed at improving the education of poor and working children.

The centuries have passed and times have changed. Fortunately, child labor is no longer practiced in modern, industrial societies to the extent that once was the case. Exploitive child labor, however, continues as a practice in several areas around the globe. Sunday schools now focus primarily on educating the children of adult members of the church. When they are promoted beyond the membership of the church it is often a matter of evangelism - a way of encouraging those who don’t participate in the church to become involved.

Over the years I’ve had countless conversations with faithful church members who view the Sunday school as an instrument of institutional survival. The Sunday school is seen as the key to having adult members in the future.

On the North American continent, prior to the beginnings of the Sunday school movement, there were prominent leaders who envisioned a public education system that offered schooling to all children. Boston Latin School was founded in the Massachusetts Colony in 1635 as the first public school. The Mather School, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, opened in 1639 as the first free school funded by taxpayers.

Starting schools was an important mission of our forebears in the United Church of Christ. Our church has, throughout its history, supported the education of all children through public schools.

This history and more is important to remember now that we find ourselves at a point of national crisis in regards to education and schools. The opening of schools is being used for political advantage by some as educators scramble to figure out how to continue to teach while providing for the safety of students and school personnel. In every school district in the nation debates are raging as to when and how to open the schools.

Our schools were forced into a sudden shutdown in the face of the pandemic last spring. Some schools were better able than others to respond with distance education. Innovative teachers developed lesson plans that could be delivered via the Internet and schools continued to teach in the best ways they could given the inability to meet for face to face class. In this process a large number of students simply did not receive educational services. Even where school districts were able to provide tablet computers to children, many lived in homes where there is no access to high speed Internet. In many homes, Internet service is provided alongside cable television and when unemployment threatened the economic survival of the family, cable television was cancelled. The model of distance learning only threatens to leave millions of children without access to education.

Our schools have too little classroom space and too few teachers to support the kind of physical distancing recommended by health authorities. Classrooms that last year housed 30 students with a single teacher are only large enough for a dozen students if six foot spacing is observed.

Faced with the realities of our situation, many school districts are proposing hybrid models of education, with some in-person classes and some online learning. There are a lot of different models being proposed, but often the proposals include schooling a couple of days a week, which allows for students to be spaced out with fewer students each day. This in-person component will also provide teachers with a way to maintain relationships and to discover which children need additional assistance with access to the online components of the program.

We are at a point where we need to reinvent education for the children of our world. Just as churches were key to the establishment of public schools and educational institutions that helped to raise children from poverty and exploitative child labor, there is a new opportunity for churches to take up the cause of supporting education for all children. Many church buildings have classroom space that reflects the postwar baby boom. Those classrooms often sit empty six days each week. Churches can partner with public schools to provide physical space so that classes can be smaller and appropriate space can be maintained.

Physical space is only part of the problem, however. The key to education has always been providing teachers. The teacher-student relationship is the foundation of all effective education. Many of our churches already have systems and policies in place to provide safe teachers and mentors for children. We have mechanisms to screen adults who work with children. Our churches also tend to have an abundance of senior citizens and retired persons. The population of our churches offers a rich group of experienced adults who have time to volunteer as mentors. Even though many church members do not have the education and training to teach, volunteers can be trained, supported and deployed to provide an auxiliary for the professional teachers employed by school districts.

There are a lot of details that have not been thought through in this proposal, but the call to action is clear. Once again our nation finds itself at a point of crisis where churches have a lot to offer to their communities. We are called into new partnerships to serve others.

How we will respond remains to be seen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!