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Going Public

How to make the most of your child's public school experience.

Kathy dreaded the meeting with Brian's teacher. She wanted to try once more to end the almost daily bullying her 9-year-old son endured. Yet in their past meetings on the issue, the teacher seemed not to recognize the behavior as bullying. Instead, she treated these as "normal" schoolyard fights, punishing both boys equally. She interpreted Brian's withdrawal and sullenness as defiance, rather than as symptoms of depression and fear. Kathy prayed that this time the teacher would listen and take steps to protect Brian.

A group of parents in Marin County, California, had an entirely different problem. Their elementary-age children, some as young as 7, had been taken to a series of school dramas advocating acceptance of homosexuality and transsexuality. The school officials had chosen to disregard the forms parents had signed "opting out" of such instruction, and the school district is now being sued.

Across the country, whether goaded by episodes like these, by the numerous school shootings, or by the pathetic academic performance of many schools, parents are saying enough is enough and pulling their children out of public schools. Homeschooling now accounts for almost 2,000,000 children, up exponentially from 40,000 just a generation ago, while Christian schools and private schools have also experienced similar enrollment increases.

Parents who enroll their children in public schools can easily feel besieged. At church, they face close friends who have pulled their children out of the system, leaving the unspoken accusation that sending kids to public schools is akin to throwing them to the wolves.

Yet most Christian parents still opt for public education. Some parents do so because they believe it is the best way to influence those around them for Christ and to ensure their kids don't grow up in a Christian cocoon. Other parents believe part of their calling is to make the schools better for all children—something they feel is hard to accomplish if the "good" families jump ship. Finally, some beleaguered parents keep their children in the public system only reluctantly because they don't have access to or the finances for other options. No matter what your reasons are for having children in the public system, you can take steps to make sure their education is as beneficial—and as safe—as possible. Here's how:

Teach your kids the basics

When the national test scores are announced, many of us long to bury our heads in the sand. In 2000, The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (NAEP) found that only 26% of fourth graders had mastered the math skills for their grade level, 32% the reading skills, and 17% the history skills. Regardless of the causes of this abysmal performance, the simple fact is that most children do not have an adequate grasp of important concepts, a situation that will only worsen as they move through subsequent grades where new skills are stressed regardless of how well the previous skills have been learned.

It's easy to blame the schools for this sad state of educational affairs, but studies show that one of the best predictors of a child's academic achievement is parental involvement. When we consider ourselves responsible for our kids' education, their scores improve dramatically. The state of Kentucky, when forming new goals for their schools, emphasized increasing parental involvement because of the critical role parents play in a child's education. By placing a high value on learning, taking an interest in what our children are studying, reading to them and encouraging them, we can motivate our kids to learn in a way a teacher with 30 other students simply cannot.

Monitor the messages

The main concern with the public school system, though, is usually not with the academics but with the accompanying messages. Whether it's permissive sex education, evolution, values clarification, or even the more recent "understanding Islam" curriculum, we're naturally nervous about the perspective from which these subjects will be taught. In some ways, though, this concern may work to our benefit, since it can spur us to action. We know we have to be sure that we give our kids have a solid faith foundation.

We must keep praying that our children would "not be conformed to this world" (Rom. 12:2, NASB), but they also need us to help make that happen. Monitor what your children are hearing by reviewing their assignments and asking about the books they're reading. When these messages violate scriptural principles, talk about the reasons your family has a different belief or why you disagree with the perspective offered.

Our job, though, is not only to react to what our children are exposed to, but to be proactive in teaching them how to handle this exposure. Deuteronomy 6, which instructs us to teach our children about God at every opportunity, is directed at parents, not teachers. So parents need to prepare their children to deal with possible situations before they step into the school. We need to teach them Scripture at home, so they will easily recognize lies when they hear them. Encourage them to respectfully ask questions when something doesn't make sense or goes against what they've been taught. It's a big job, but one for which parents are uniquely selected.

Know their friends

Besides our concerns about what our children are taught, their biggest negative influences at school may be their fellow students. Peers can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on even the most independent child, influencing their behavior and attitudes in ways that can make us cringe.

Peter Kenniphaas, a senior pastor, and his wife, Barb, make it a policy to have their children's friends over as often as possible. They want to get to know their children's friends to make sure the influence "is going in the right direction," as he puts it. "It's taken some family adjustments to live with the mess and the chaos, but this way we get to know who the boys are hanging out with."

In addition to monitoring who our kids spend time with, we need to directly encourage positive relationships. Kids who feel lonely or left out are more likely to act inappropriately to try to gain popularity. Take what opportunities you have, especially when your kids are young, to encourage positive relationships in school.

When my daughter Rebecca was in kindergarten, she made fast friends with a girl who tended to monopolize all games, formed clubs to exclude other children, and in general was rather bossy. I went into the class, met some mothers of other little girls, and invited them over to our house. Soon Rebecca had other friends to play with, and the bossy one diminished in importance without me having to say anything to Rebecca about it.

If your child is struggling to make friends, talk with his teacher to find out which kids might make good friends for your child and help him plan a time to get together with those children. It might not feel natural, but if the kids share a common interest or complement each other nicely, a real friendship can blossom just the same.

Be a volunteer

Forrest Turpen, Executive Director of the Christian Educators Association International, says volunteering is an extremely effective way we can help our children's educational experience. Schools are increasingly facing budget crunches and discontinued services, so volunteers can help plug this gap. A side benefit of our involvement is that as we become known at the school, we build positive relationships with school officials. If a problem occurs, instead of thinking of Mrs. Smith, "the mother of that problem child," the teacher or principal pictures Marjorie, a big asset to the school.

To cultivate this kind of relationship and to help create a caring school community, volunteer in the classroom. If you can't be involved during the day, you can still make yourself indispensable by joining the school's parent and community groups and serving on committees. Sometimes, just by being available, we are given opportunities to make tremendous changes.

Three women in Vancouver, British Columbia, became very influential without specifically setting out to do so. They simply felt called to serve the teachers in that school. They brought donuts to the staff room, made the coffee for meetings, helped out with fundraising, and did whatever they could for the teachers, with no strings attached. They earned such a positive reputation at the school that when they became concerned about some sex education content three years later, the principal was eager to hear their viewpoint. He even invited the women to serve on a curriculum review committee. And it all started because they heeded the call to be "salt."

In the end, a successful education hinges on parents. If we want to raise kids who will be productive, responsible, godly adults, we have to take ultimate responsibility for their education. Volunteering in the school, drilling our kids on their math facts, and explaining biblical principles are all crucial parts of this process. Regardless of where your children go to school, you can keep God at the center of their schooling. With him there, your children won't just survive, they'll thrive!

Sheila Wray Gregoire is the mother of two and the author of To Love, Honor, and Vacuum (Kregel). Visit her at sheilawraygregoire.com.

The Power of Praying Moms

Prayer, of course, might be the best way you can make the most of your child's public school experience.

Just ask Sally Burke. When she joined a Moms In Touch International group 14 years ago, she had no idea how it would change her life—or the lives of many others.

But Sally, a mom from Temecula, California, says she has seen God at work in big ways over those years, especially in her children's schools.

"Moms in Touch has forever changed and blessed my life, my family, and so many others all around me," Sally says. "We have seen God do the most awesome miracles on behalf of the children, teachers and administrators in the schools."

Moms In Touch International (MITI) is a worldwide network of prayer groups, comprised mostly of mothers, that meet one hour a week to pray for their children and their schools, teachers and administrators.

Among the miracles Sally says she's seen:

  • An evangelistic "Good News Club" meets monthly at the local public school, and many children have come to Christ. Last year, two brand-new believers asked Sally to pray for them to be able to go to church. Within weeks, "God brought a grandma to our group who happens to live on their street, and now they get to go to church every week."
  • A teacher at the school with two young daughters suddenly became a single mom. "We prayed God would provide for their every need, especially their salvation," says Sally. "All three came to know the Lord and are doing well."

Sally says God works not only in the students and staff at school, but in the MITI women as well.

"When they first join the group," says Sally, "some moms come in with heavy burdens and hearts, not really knowing how to pray. But as they focus on God and pray, their lives change from worrying moms to mighty prayer warriors."

MITI groups use a four-step prayer format: praise, silent confession, thanksgiving, intercession. It has no hidden agenda; its ministry is simply to affect communities and schools through the power of prayer.

If you're interested in joining or starting a Moms In Touch group, check out the MITI website at momsintouch.org. You can also call 1-800-949-MOMS, or e-mail info@momsintouch.org

— Mark Moring

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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