Nicole Baker Fulgham is the founder and president of The Expectations Project, a nonprofit organization that develops & mobilizes faith-motivated advocates who help close the academic achievement gap in public schools. She is the author of Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.
KW: What combination of experiences led to your passion and dedication to closing the education achievement gap in America?
NBF: I grew up in Detroit and saw an enormous amount of inequity in my city’s public schools. I realized that the schools in my neighborhood couldn’t even come close to the quality of schools in wealthier communities. I was fortunate to get accepted into a phenomenal public high school in Detroit – it was one of two high schools, at the time, with a strong academic curriculum designed to prepare all students for college. The other 20 or so high schools in Detroit simply didn’t do that. While I was grateful for that opportunity, it also further reinforced my perception of public school inequity. My Christian faith also grew during high school and college and strengthened my burden to live out Christ’s mandate to help eliminate injustice in the world. After becoming a public school teacher in Compton, California I further witnessed the inequities in public schools – but I also got to know the amazingly talented students in my class. All children have God-given potential, but we have to create a school system that ensures they can live out their academic promise. I became hooked on this issue and never looked back!
KW: Can you summarize some of the numbers and provide some examples that highlight the severity of the issue?
NBF: Educational inequity is severe and we have to focus on it now. Of the 16 million kids growing up in poverty, only half will ever graduate from high school. Only 1 in 14 will graduate from college. Children in poor communities are three grade levels behind students in wealthier neighborhoods by the time they’re in fourth grade. We are literally losing children who drop out of school or, at best, graduate “undereducated.” Their job prospects are severely limited and they’re more likely to get trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Beyond the statistics, educational disparity impacts the lives of real people – children. When I taught fifth grade in an urban public school, about two-thirds of my fifth grade students were performing at the level of a second grade student or below. In practical terms, this meant that an average fifth grade student should be able to read the Harry Potter book series – but most of my students struggled to read the toddler picture book, Goodnight Moon. I had students who couldn’t do basic two-digit addition and subtraction in the fifth grade. As you might imagine, this hugely impacted their self-esteem and confidence. During the course of a school year I had more than one student declare, “I’m just dumb” when we worked one-on-one to catch them up after school. Fortunately, my students, their families and community volunteers put in a lot of hard work and these same students had a very different perception of themselves by the end of the school year.
KW: What does your organization, The Expectations Project, do to mobilize people of faith to support this work?
NBF: The Expectations Project does three key things to mobilize people of faith around educational equity. First, we build awareness about the scope of the problem in our nation’s public schools. We talk honestly about where things are – but we also provide a hopeful message as we share evidence of what is working for students in low-income public schools. Next, we provide faith communities with concrete ways they can get involved in local public schools and “do something today.” Our long-term work with helps individuals advocate for long-term systemic change in public schools. We educate faith communities on key issues in public education and help them identify opportunities to share their views with education decision-makers.
KW: What are 3 things Christians in America are missing when it comes to their understanding of the issue of education in America?
NBF: Great question! A few important truths as we think about educational disparity in the United States:
- Educational inequity can be eliminated. We don’t have to live with educational inequity in America’s schools. We can change this. Poverty doesn’t determine a child’s academic potential. Poverty does present some very real challenges, but we have many, many examples of students growing up in challenging circumstances who achieve. Entire classrooms, schools and school districts are defying the odds – and that list is growing every day. We do know a lot about what it takes to eliminate academic disparity, but it will take a lot of hard work from multiple stakeholders – including faith communities.
- Parents in low-income neighborhoods care deeply about the education of their children. There’s a common myth about parents in poor community: they just don’t care about education (and this is not solely a myth that some Christians may hold). In fact, in study after study reveals that all parents – regardless of their race, ethnicity or income want the very best for their child’s schooling. Parents may have different approaches to engaging with schools, less time to get involved, or they might have a different understanding about what parental engagement looks like. But there are very few parents in any community who simply don’t care. Rather than criticizing parents, we’ll get much further if we start from a place of believing the best about parents – but also finding ways for our churches to support parents who may be juggling a lot of things in their lives.
- The separation of Church and State does not prevent Christians from getting involved in public schools. I do find that some Christians feel they cannot volunteer in public schools, in part, because they worry that it violates Church/State separation – or they don’t think our help is wanted. Both of these concerns couldn’t be further from the truth! It’s completely acceptable and legal for congregations to partner with public schools. Of course we have to be mindful of not explicitly sharing our religious beliefs with students and teachers – but we can “put our faith in action” and Christians have a long tradition of doing just that. Also, most public schools welcome support from religiously affiliated groups. They recognize our passion to help others; school leaders and teachers are generally happy to find ways to leverage our interest…and we can truly be a force for change!
KW: How could someone who is interested in this issue take their first steps toward action?
NBF: There are so many ways one can make a difference! We encourage individuals to first become a bit more informed about public education – but start relatively small. A few suggestions (and check out our website, www.theexpectationsproject.org, for more specific ideas!):
- Start an education discussion group/book club/Bible study with a few friends.
- Watch one of the many fabulous education documentaries to learn more about educational inequity.
- Get connected to a phenomenal tutoring program. Volunteer one hour a week and make an impact on a child’s education!
- Support a non-profit organization that’s doing great things for children in low-income public schools.