U-C: What I See

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Supporting our Racial/Ethnic Schools - Why I changed my mind!


This one leads with confession. It's the kind of confession I've had to make before - the kind that comes from growing up with white privilege and having so much to learn.

My confession is that until two months ago, I would have been among those who say that our Racial/Ethnic Schools are a throwback to another era, and they are no longer relevant. I WAS WRONG!

(If you don't have time to read the whole blog, check out this link to our Racial Ethnic Schools and Colleges on the PC(USA) website at http://www.pcusa.org/resc/)

For those of you who, like me, are ignorant about our schools, here's the background. Once upon a time our denomination's identity was wrapped up in providing higher education, and we demonstrated a particular concern for schools for folks who were disadvantaged and quite unlikely to have access to education in any other way. Some of those schools were boarding schools like Pan American in Texas or Menaul in Albuquerque that were focused on educating Native Americans or Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Others were what we now call Historically Black Colleges like Knoxville, Barber Scotia, Tusculum, Stillman, or Mary Holmes (that was just closed down recently). The list also includes Sheldon Jackson College working with Native Americans in Alaska and Cook College in Arizona.

Many (though not all) of those schools are struggling to keep their doors open today. A few have lost their acreditation and are working hard to get it back. The schools receive a tiny percentage of what they once did from the PC(USA), most of which comes in the form of loans or loan guarantees from the denomination or the 2.5 million dollar Christmas Joy Offering which is divided among them.

Since I was elected Moderator, I've heard many folks suggest that these schools have outlived their usefulness, or that the weaker schools ought to be closed so that the stronger ones might thrive. Though I had never visited any of the schools except Menaul in Albuquerque, I tended to agree.

I was wrong. I'm grateful that I didn't speak my mind publically (when one is has grown up with privilege it is wise to with-hold judgement till one has direct experience).

I've now visited Menaul, Pan American School, Cook College and Theological School, Knoxville College, Barber Scotia, Tusculum and Johnson C. Smith. I have plans to visit the others as I travel around the country. Here's what I've found.

At Cook College, I found a deep commitment to provide access to higher education for Native Americans who are not likely to find it any other way. I found a beautiful campus, great resources, a thriving faculty, and a clear desire to articulate a renewed sense of mission.

At Pan American, I found a school that is clearly on the upswing. Lots of talented high school students from Mexico, Central America, Korea and Texas. The night I was hosted by the kids there, it was clear to me that this school is experiencing a rebirth. The students are very bright, and they are the kind of kids we want for the emerging, border crossing church.

At Knoxville, I found a clear conviction that the future of the school is to make a liberal arts education available to kids whose families are right on the edge. This school is quite creative, and they commit that every student who is willing to work hard will graduate debt free. How do they do it? Students are required to work on campus, and then in businesses in which the school has an ownership interest (the first is a gas station/convenience store that the college co-owns at the bottom of the hill), and eventually to give service to community organizations. This college is innovative and exciting.

At Barber Scotia, I found a college that is re-making itself into the institution that will give poor students the skills they need to compete in the business world.

I could tell other stories, but you get the idea. Here's the deal.

It seems to me that these institutions are all, in one way or another, committed to educating the teenagers and young adults who are on the underside of the global economy. These are kids who, if they don't go to one of these schools, are not likely to go anywhere. They're bright, but they're going to need a different kind of attention than I needed to get into school and to stick it out.

The fact that these schools are alive at all is pretty miraculous. These schools aren't looking for a handout. Most of them have a clear vision for how to become far more independent over time. This strikes me as one of the places where Presbyterians could be reforging a vision that goes back to our roots in education, but that takes a clear headed look at the future and commits to the folks on the margins. It won't be in the form of block grants from our denomination, but these schools would welcome Presbyterians who make it their mission to help them survive and thrive.

Something to think about.