WHEN YOU'RE TIRED OF MESSING AROUND, YOU go to what works. Supercilious ivory-tower philosophies of the autonomy of man and disposability of God are the luxuries of easier times. If crack weren't sold on street corners, and if kids all had daddies, and moms stayed home, it wouldn't matter as much what air-head worldview you indulged in; we could revive the 17th-century French salons and pass the afternoon in "prŽciositŽ" like Madame de Sevigne, peeling grapes and exchanging the latest fashion in ideas.
Paul Vallas doesn't have that kind of time. Coaxed from Chicago in hopes that he will do in the Philadelphia school system what he did in the Windy City, the school CEO is not about to retry A.S. Neill's famous Summerhill experiment that treated students like free-range chickens, on the premise of their innate goodness. (Neill had said: "I see that all outside compulsion is wrong.... And if Mary or David wants to laze about, lazing about is the one thing necessary for their personalities at the moment.") The world Mr. Vallas inherited when a state takeover replaced the city Board of Education with the School Reform Commission is a world of low test scores, "social promotions," and truancy (12,500 a day AWOL in 2002). But he comes with good instincts about what works-and what works is not trying to expel God from school.
Deep down, lots of folks have those same instincts. The Christian Science Monitor wrote in 2001 about a survey done by Public Agenda: "a large U.S. majority wants religion's influence on society to increase.... Americans remain deeply concerned about a loss of moral moorings in the U.S., and they are looking to religion as the best means to right the ship." The article went on to say that the survey "portrays a people convinced of religion's ability to change attitudes and behavior, but, quite remarkably, equally attuned to the importance of respect for religious diversity."
If America sounds conflicted, Mr. Vallas is not. Speaking from the pulpit of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas to mark the start of the present school year, he preached, "There are dynamic religious institutions in Philadelphia, and it's foolish for schools not to partner with them.... We'll always be careful about the separation of church and state, but there are so many ways the religious institutions can help."
One of those ways is particularly exciting. In his wise-as-a-serpent-and-innocent-as-a-dove manner, Mr. Vallas has seized on a heretofore little noticed Pennsylvania law on the books since 1982, which stipulates that "upon the written request of a parent, the superintendent of the school district shall excuse the parent's child in order to attend religious instruction (section 15-1546). The child will be released for such instruction no more than 36 hours per school year."
The law is known as "released time" (RT), and there's no stopping Mr. Vallas now. Five schools took the plunge last year, and four more plan to join within the next month. (Four other states also have laws requiring schools to allow for religious education-off school grounds-if parents request it.) Across the country 250,000 students now participate, says California-based Fellowship of Christian Released Time Ministries. You will see buses pulling up in front of elementary schools, or children escorted on foot from their schools to an RT "Learning Center" yards away.
Partnering is busting out all over. District officials are talking to clergymen to build on long-established neighborhood relationships. Clergymen are talking to school principals about everything from after-school gospel choirs, to mentoring, to offering their churches as places to send suspended students, if parents agree. (Students could be involved in church maintenance or some other nonreligious activity.) Groups like Skilton House Ministries are working hard to bring more churches on board. And Mr. Vallas is hammering on the ramparts of Washington to seek more federal funding for faith-based initiatives.
The Philadelphia Inquirer tells of McDaniel, a K-4 grade school with the unhappy distinction of having the highest number of pupil assaults (21) in the district during the first quarter of 2002. The principal teamed up with nearby Christian Compassion Baptist Church and printed fliers for back-to-school night, at which the parents of 30 children, some of McDaniel's toughest, signed up their kids for RT: They leave on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and are back by 3 for dismissal with their friends. Principal Brenda Wortham reports that even that small hour per week had led to great improvement in the participants' behavior-and the school atmosphere.
Which sounds like it should be a teaching moment for America: Positive outcomes come from founding programs on reality. Things work when they are based on truth.