NASHVILLE, Tenn.-On a Thursday afternoon in early May, the freshmen in Will Fuller's world geography class are describing their ideal country for their end-of-year presentations. The teens fidget and smile at each other as they take turns stepping to the front of the room to explain their utopian country's government structure, majority religion, welfare policies, and ways to fight crime. Each time a presentation ends, students ask tough questions.
The presentations are part of an in-depth project requiring critical thinking and broad application of the concepts the students have learned throughout the year. They reflect the demanding yet encouraging posters papering the walls of Fuller's classroom. (One lists the qualities of a Fulbright Scholar. Another tracks the students' college admission goals.)
The questions, the posters, the students' quiet conduct as they file out when the bell rings-that's what we might expect at an expensive private school. Yet LEAD Academy is located in a small, somewhat rundown brick building in Elizabeth Park, a Nashville neighborhood. Nearly 40 percent of the residents have incomes below the government's poverty line, and the number of single-mother households is more than triple the state average.
Fuller teaches at LEAD through Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit organization that sends recent college graduates and young professionals to teach in low-income areas. But he said that over the past two years, he has dealt with few problems-violence, gangs, classroom control-typically associated with low-income schools: "I've been fortunate that I was placed in the charter school system where we're really set up for success." Across town, two of Fuller's fellow TFA recruits have very different tales to tell.
When walking onto the sprawling, state-of-the-art campus of Cane Ridge High School, one striking detail is how expensive everything looks. Another is how many police cars are out front.
Sophomore math teacher Angela Reuter said the school's $5 million price tag has done little to curb the problems inside its walls: "It's hard because people see this as a really nice school, and yet we have kids in gangs, kids walking around in ankle bracelets, police patrolling the hallways." Security tightened that day because of a fight that broke out the day before. Some of Reuter's students have "already cycled through"-meaning they had "cycled" their way from her class to jail and back again. Pregnancy and drugs, she said, are also common problems.
Though Reuter's students are only one grade ahead of Fuller's, their demeanor presents a stark contrast. No one responds to the questions Reuter poses until she prods them several times. She stops frequently to warn a loud group of boys. Toward the end of the lesson she discovers others had been listening to music through ear buds.
Michelle Wright, math teacher at Two Rivers Middle school, said even though her students are younger, she faces many of the same issues: Students tell her they will drop out and not attend high school. Already, many "apathetic" students are repeating grades. "They just get shuffled from one school to another," she said. "They'll have disciplinary problems and get expelled from one school and are then sent to our school for a couple of months until we expel them." The day I visited her classroom, the eighth-grade students were on lockdown because of a fight the previous day.
On the surface, the biggest difference between Fuller's experience with TFA and those of Reuter and Wright seems to be Fuller's charter school, which has more autonomy in terms of discipline and resource allocation. But all three said that's oversimplifying the problem-and taking the pressure off Christians to do the hard work Christ calls them to. The real difference they see is that the kids in the charter school have someone in their lives who loves them.
Fuller said up to 95 percent of his school's students qualify for free and reduced lunch based on their low income level. But students must apply to attend LEAD-a tremendous advantage LEAD has over other schools because it means that every student has at least one adult in his life who cared enough to enroll him in a charter school: "A lot of times, it's not even a parent. It's some other relative or family friend. But it is at least someone."
Compare that experience to Reuter's: Most of her students' families have no interest in hearing from the school. Or to Wright's: She describes a track meet that "was a pretty big event because the team had gone from district to regional to finally the city, and it was the last competition of the year. Out of 14 kids, only one had a parent show up. And this was something that they'd worked for the entire season."
Still, Fuller, Wright, and Reuter said working for TFA provided them an open field for evangelism.
Wright recalled the day several girls started crying one by one in her classroom: "I don't know how it started but one of the girls said, 'I hate my dad because he took away my phone,' or something like that. The next thing I know, I look over and one of our eighth-grade girls is sobbing. So I pull her aside to ask what's wrong, and she says, 'My parents are divorced and my dad just told me this morning he's moving away.' So we talked about it for a little bit, then I look over a couple seats away, and there's another student starting to cry. She says, 'My dad hasn't seen me since I was 6 because he doesn't want to be in my life.' And then the next girl starts crying and says, 'Well I don't even know who my dad is.' And I am not kidding you, I had seven girls crying at the same time. I don't know how you address that without God, because what other solution is there?"
Wright says she felt the Holy Spirit prompting her in that moment to tell the girls that though they've been hurt by unfaithful men, they can be healed through a relationship with a faithful God: "I would never force my perspective on a kid, but I'm going to do what I feel God would want me to do. Even more than I desire my students to get on the right track academically, it is my deepest desire that they come to know the Lord." Later, after one student began coming to her room at lunch to ask Wright to explain Bible passages, more students began showing up with questions of their own.
Reuter, too, said once she made it known publicly that she was a Christian, students began flocking to her. She started a prayer board in her classroom to keep up with all her students' prayer requests, and when she offered to drive students to her church's Wednesday night youth service, she quickly realized she couldn't accommodate all the takers. She had to seek help from her pastor, who started a shuttle service for them. It started with 60 kids, and the number still grows. "I've had students tell me that the environment in our school has changed because of it."
Fuller, Wright, and Reuter all said the biggest challenge in helping students like theirs learn about Jesus is not a lack of interest from the kids, but a lack of Christians willing to go to the mission fields in their own backyards.
"The one thing people need to know," Fuller said, "is that we need believers here in the thick of where the heartache is. I think it's glamorous to say, I'm going to Nepal or I'm going to go to Japan to do a mission. But we need a generation of people who are willing to go, you know, here."
Fuller believes that local individualized ministry, in which Christians invest in young people long-term, is the key to overcoming not just the education gap, but many other societal problems.
"Teach for America comes at it from the point of view that if you just work really hard to provide yourself opportunities, you can overcome anything in your background," he says. "The problem with that is it still doesn't heal the emotional baggage. You just gloss over it with hard work and making a lot of money. So then you become successful and get to be an adult and wonder why you still have pain in your life and why your family's still dysfunctional." He compares it to putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.
Fuller says real change can only come to the inner city once missionaries interested in depth rather than breadth make a commitment to it: "Pick a couple of kids and pour your life into them. Because once Christians start to do that, that's when we'll start seeing a huge difference."
Wright believes one reason churches have done so little is because "a lot of Christians don't realize how valuable their commitment would be in inner cities, or even how much they have to offer because there's not a whole lot of attention directed to it from the church."
Due to worries over government regulation and fear of lawsuits regarding religion in public schools, this lack of church involvement isn't likely to change soon.
But Wright said Christians aren't off the hook, given how great the need is. "Can you send a single email and find the perfect way for you to get involved? Probably not. But if, for example, a bunch of Christian college guys came over from Vanderbilt and said, 'We really want to help with your football program,' our coach would say in a heartbeat, 'Please do!' Or if a group of Christians came to our school and said 'We'd like to help with afterschool tutoring,' I have a hard time believing any of our schools would turn them away."
Fuller said this type of high-commitment ministry not only changes the culture of inner cities but also leads to spiritual growth in churches. He said teaching pushes him to live out the Scripture in a "raw" way to the kids: "It's such a different feeling of dependence on God, and I just think not only are [Christians] needed in these places, but we are missing out by not being there."
Wright agreed: "I spent six months on a mission in India, and a summer living in an orphanage in Mexico. But I have never seen a harvest so ready as it is today with our kids."