(Originally Published in Tri-State Voice, March 2008)

Recently, an advertisement on the subway caught my eye: “Invest in 1.2 million futures.”

It made me smile, because the Coalition of Urban Youth Workers in New York City, of which I’m a part, recently launched 20 / 20 Vision for Schools as an initiative to mobilize 7,100 individual congregations to serve the 1.2 millions students enrolled in the city’s 1,400 public schools. The goal of 20/20 is to finally make good on our promise that if kids stay in school they’ll be equipped with the skills needed to succeed in life.  With 50-80 percent of church members already directly connected with schools — as students, parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, custodians, merchants selling to students before and after school, etc. — there is no excuse to accept educational failure for any more generations of students.

For the last 25 years, I have navigated the public school arena, not as teacher or administrator, or even an after school coordinator, but as a volunteer youth worker. People are often surprised when I tell them that, and immediately ask, “how do you get around generational mistrust that seems to stand between the faith community and the public schools? ” There’s only one way I know of, and that’s by cultivating relationships at the school through building what Pastor Ray Parrascando of Crossroads Church in Staten Island calls a “resume of trust.”

What is a resume of trust, and how does a local congregation establish one with a local school in their community? A resume of trust is anything you do to create sincere relationships around a shared vision. In the context of faith community and public schools, it means establishing a track record of confidence by school administrators toward the intention of your relationship to the school. If the idea of 20/20 vision for schools builds momentum, it will be because the faith community decides they have something valuable to offer the school down the block, and take the initiative with the school administration.

You might ask, what about church-state issues that have kept churches and public schools at arm’s length for generations? Jeremy Del Rio, a founding member of the Coalition commented recently, “The separation of church and state does not prohibit faith-based people from being a real resource to schools.” He added, “Our job is to learn the language of schools and their needs, so that we can meet them on their terms, not ours.” Jeremy’s right, when we walk on a public school campus, we fall under policies designed to protect students. They are not “no trespassing” signs that dismiss the faith community, but “yield” signs that should give us pause. Are we willing to volunteer, to serve the greatest needs of the school? Do we have tangible and relevant resources to offer, that will make a real difference? Are we in touch with the unique pressures and issues facing the administration?

It seems intimidating to approach school administrators, especially the principal. But in my experience principals are our city’s silent heroes, ever watchful, mentoring teachers, going about their job in a relentless pursuit to create classrooms where learning becomes a loved past time. I have not met a single one in 25 years that doesn’t care deeply about every student under their care. It hurts them when they see students fail, become engulfed in violence, or struggle with on-time promotion. I want to get to know them, because I share their love for students, and want to come along side as a resource.

Do you have a school close to your congregation? Do you know the principal, or are you willing to schedule an appointment to get to know them? Perhaps you could take them out to lunch, and you pick up the tab. Remember, building a resume of trust happens when we approach the school with no other agenda besides serving and being a resource. A principal has to see you are there in the best interest of the child. But remember, this may not happen over night. Principals are generally cautious, because most people they relate with want something, instead of giving to them with no strings attached. Building a resume of trust takes 20 /20 Vision for Schools beyond a theory, and allows your local congregation to re-engage in the public school forum. When the faith community comes to the table to roll up their sleeves wanting to solve issues rather than simply critique policy, the first step in that vision has taken place—trust built.

Recently, I got to know a principal in a Brooklyn high school, through a friend of mine who teaches at the school. Each time I visit there I make a point of briefly dropping by the principal’s office. One day my friend mentioned that the principal was looking for an assembly speaker to motivate his students. When I said I had someone in mind, we went to the principal and offered this to him. How much would it cost his school? What would the speaker say? I assured him that there would be no cost, and outlined the message. The day of the assembly he was ecstatic, saying that many students had thanked him for bringing in such an inspirational speaker. In a single afternoon, our resume of trust was strengthened, and students rewarded with hope.

The idea of building a resume of trust sounds like a lot of work. Can someone from your congregation, who has limited time, or training actually do this? I’ll let you be the judge. Can someone bring bagels and juice into the faculty lounge one day a week? Can the woman’s Bible study sponsor a holiday meal? Is there someone in your church with a specialized background that could volunteer to speak to a classroom? Are there volunteers willing to help as hall monitors, or teacher’s aids? Could your church invite the principal to speak one Sunday morning, so that your congregation knows the unique issues facing that school? Can your church organize a beautification day on a Saturday morning, where members clean up the school grounds, even paint a room? Finally, what about sponsoring an educator’s appreciation Sunday, to honor teachers and administrators?

If enough congregations built sincere relationships with schools in their community, the shared vision of transforming public schools within a single generation would begin to come to life. That kind of vision is not only good for the students, it’s good for everyone.

Will you rise to the occasion?  Together we can, “Invest in 1.2 million futures.”

-  Kevin Young directs Student Venture, the high school ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, in New York City.  He is a founding member of the Coalition and pioneer of 2020 Vision for Schools.  Visit www.2020Schools.net for more information how your congregation can adopt a local school.