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Going Public

9 ways to help your child survive—and thrive—in the public-school setting.

The telephone rang. It was my son's school librarian.

"Mrs. Houston, I hear you had a problem with one of our library books," she stated.

I gripped the phone, shot up a prayer for wisdom, then replied evenly, "I'm concerned with the content of one of the books—the one about werewolves."

"Have you read the book?" she queried.

Some of my sweetest prayer times were over my children's education.

"Yes, I have. Have you?" I asked carefully. "It describes the crunching sound of a baby's skull while the wolf eats him, and gives detailed instructions on how to sell your soul to the devil."

"Well, I haven't read that particular book," she replied. "But the ones I've read in the same series are harmless fun and encourage older children to read books."

"I want to encourage children to read as well," I assured her. "But I believe this book's inappropriate. Actually, when I heard your voice, I thought the principal had talked to you because I met with her this morning."

"What did the principal say?" she asked with interest.

"I explained my concerns, and she told me she'll read the book and get back to me."

The above encounter took place during our family's 19-year journey in the public-school system in Eugene, Oregon. When we moved to Eugene in 1983, we enrolled the eldest of our three children in the first grade there. Many school districts nationwide provide an excellent, balanced education, but the city of Eugene—and its public-school system—are heavily influenced by its liberal university culture and prominent homosexual community. But as new Christians, we were eager to live as "light to the world."

A few days after my conversation with the librarian, our school principal informed me that she'd decided to recommend the series be removed from the district. While this situation had a happy ending, not every conflict we encountered was so neatly resolved. However, I realized shortly after this incident that effectively raising my children in the Lord in the public schools would require some finesse and real work. Here are nine things I learned about doing it well:

1. Get a handle on what's happening

Thoroughly digest any letter sent home, write dates from the school newsletter on your calendar, and search the school's website. Attend at least one sports event and a school play, even if your child's not in them.

2. Give accolades when due

The headline for Time magazine's February 21, 2005 lead article was, "What Teachers Hate About Parents." The article described parents who always look for something wrong. It's important for your praises to outnumber your criticisms ten to one.

While volunteering in a class, I watched one teacher's technique with real interest and gave her frequent praise. Then, when she suggested once that our family was too "moralistic" because we expected our son not to use foul language on the playground, it was easy to kindly assert that our opinion about such behavior be respected.

3. Volunteer however possible

Merryl Nelson, a Christian mom who taught in the San Diego, California school system and raised her kids there, recommends parents become involved as a room parent, on the PTA board, or as a volunteer in a class. "I always volunteered to teach music in both my sons' classes through elementary school," she explains.

If you're a working mom, consider enlisting a relative or stand-in "grandma" from church to volunteer in your child's class. One year my mother took my place in our daughter's reading class. Our daughter excelled in reading that year! If you're able to rearrange your work hours, consider becoming a field-trip driver. The PTA also usually meets in the evening.

4. Know what your child's learning

Ask the teacher to see the curriculum guides and take time to review class books. What are you looking for? Red flags and green lights. When one son was in fourth grade, I simply opened a history book in several places and read one page at each spot. Not only did I not find anything worrisome, I was pleased to find the textbook included excerpts from original documents. If you find any red flags in the first four excerpts, read more. Trust your insights, but also be open to explanation.

You can also figure out what your child's learning by spending time in the classroom. For example, I was correcting math papers in the back of a class one day while the teacher explained how Thanksgiving got its name. She said the pilgrims had a feast to thank the Indians for helping them through the winter, and today it's called "Thanksgiving." We talked at recess, and she said she was a Christian but afraid for her job if she taught the truth that the pilgrims were really thanking God. A bond was struck, and we became prayer partners for the school.

5. Put expectations in writing

Begin the year by introducing your family and writing a short, friendly note. Explain for your child's teachers any considerations you'd like your family to receive because of your values, such as your desire for a release from Halloween celebrations or to attend Good Friday services.

Include in your letter a request to be notified of any lessons or presentations you'd want to review first and/or possibly remove your child from for the day. For our family, that included the acceptance of homosexuality (by law taught in every grade, every year, in every school in Oregon), birth control, evolution, and sex education. Be as specific as possible.

6. Know when to criticize

The best rule of thumb for conflict resolution is first to express your concern to the immediate staff person with whom you have the problem. I learned this the hard way when I unwisely passed over the librarian by talking to the principal first in the book incident. If a suitable solution isn't reached and peace can't be achieved, work your way up humbly and prayerfully.

But remember to have reasonable expectations of your school staff. The same principal who removed the inappropriate reading series from the school district was powerless to remove a lesson in a well-known, self-paced reading program that encouraged students to practice meditation. If, in time, you believe an acceptable solution hasn't been found, prayerfully reconsider whether God intends for you to educate your child elsewhere.

7. Teach your children discernment

Your child needs to learn about world religions and historical, scientific, sociological, and cultural facts to be fully educated. But that's where learning discernment and the Holy Spirit's leading insure they fit knowledge with wisdom.

Our children were enrolled in Sunday school, Bible clubs, and attended church from a young age. But it was our task to make the truths "real." We used the dinner table as a forum for each family member to share one truth learned that day. Practicing this kind of critical thinking empowered our children to study any subject and compare it with God's truths.

8. Pray, pray, pray

Some of my sweetest prayer times were in the battlefield of educating my children. My seeking God's face encouraged my children to do the same. I prayed for my children and other school families with both a Moms in Touch group and a Bible study. As Christians, we can make a tremendous difference for God's kingdom by loving and supporting those who seek to educate our children in all subject areas.

9. Rest in God's provision

The first concern of any Christian parent is to "train [your] child in the way he should go" (Proverbs 22:6). So don't be afraid to step out in faith regardless of where God leads. He's able to provide for his people in any school setting.

Shelley L. Houston, a former high-school teacher, career/college counselor, and executive director of High Desert Christian College in Bend, Oregon, can be reached at createdimage@juno.com.

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

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