“Projects like this turn good schools into great schools and good kids into great students.” – Principal Theresa Dovi, PS 102

Leading Education Reform Where You Are: One Church’s Story

[Originally published by Willow Creek Association in the conference Notebook for the 2011 Global Leadership Summit. Download article pdf here.]

In September of 2008, Pastor Paul Curtis’ relationship with the public school system fit the profile of many New York City pastors. That is, he didn’t have one. Public schools seemed to him so resistant to help from churches that they were the last place he considered to begin making a difference.

Then he heard about 20/20 Vision for Schools and felt God stirring him toward a vision for people of faith to lead the effort to restore justice to public education – to level the playing field for all students regardless of neighborhood, race, or economic status. Staggering numbers made the problems feel intractable.


Despite 1,700 public schools, 1.1 million students, and a $21 billion annual budget, graduation rates in the city hovered near 50%, and reading and math proficiency lagged at or below 40%. But next to 7,100 self-described Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic churches in NYC, 1,700 schools didn’t feel so large.

“What might happen if five churches actually prayed for one neighborhood school?” Curtis reasoned. “Dare we expect God to answer?”

And what if God already positioned his church to be salt and light within those schools? Between students, parents, teachers, staff, and relatives, more than 85% of his attenders already had direct or indirect relationships with schools. Might they become answers to their own prayers, or the prayers of others?

He registered Crossroads Christian Church to adopt a school through 20/20 Vision for Schools. In spring 2010, Crossroads organized a prayer walk of four neighborhood schools. He leveraged his pulpit to launch a three-week sermon series the next Sunday, including a panel discussion with educators, administrators and students around the topic of educational justice in the public school system.

[Meet the Crossroads member and PS 102 parent that initiated the relationship with the school.]

_MG_3818Several of Curtis’ church members took the challenge. The next month, the youth minister and five teens from the church volunteered at a local school event. Then the next fall, another of his members volunteered the church’s Storefront Art Center to lead a mural project in the refurbished schoolyard. The changing demographics of the neighborhood meant hundreds of immigrant children at the 1,200-student elementary school, and a parent from Crossroads proposed creating a welcoming environment by celebrating the diversity with a public art project.

Curtis and the school agreed. Eight months later, 450+ volunteers from eight community groups (including five churches) and five sponsors joined the principal, PTA, students, and staff to execute an 875-square foot mural for six weeks. They celebrated with a schoolyard block party on June 4, 2011, attended by 1,500 neighbors of every age, race, and religion.

Now, Curtis is hooked. Welcoming neighbors from the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, by empowering their academic success no longer feels overwhelming.

It feels, and looks, like Jesus.

- Jeremy Del Rio, Esq. co-founded and directs 20/20 Vision for Schools. Free how-to resources and practical next-steps, including the PS 102 mural case study, online here: 2020schools.org/wcagls11

In His Own Words: Pastor Paul Curtis on the PS 102 Mural

You read about Pastor Paul Curtis above. Now listen to him tell the story in his own words and watch it unfold in the multimedia slideshow.

“Welcome to PS 102″ – The Documentary Experience

Mural Blog

More photos, and a step-by-step account of the mural project are online at the PS 102 Mural blog here.