The difference between Circle of Hope and the School District of Philadelphia

One of the reasons my stomach churned when I read about the School Reform Commission and its recent decision was because, for my adult life in Circle of Hope, I’ve been trained to do something totally different and in a totally different way. The SRC is the group that runs the School District of Philadelphia. It is a five-member board, three of whom are appointed Pennsylvania’s governor, and two of which Philadelphia’s mayor. Alone, in its structure, we see the difference between leadership through a team effort and leadership through fear. In Circle of Hope, we don’t have much of a “structure,” we don’t work through imposition based on titles–we work through a dialogue of mutual love.

Recently, the SRC decided to cancel the hard-fought teachers’ contracts. The contract itself was seriously negotiated for months and took a lot of hard work to create. In a poorly-announced public meeting the SRC agreed to cancel the contract, without any real input from the PFT. Though teachers won’t get any pay cuts (but the pay has been frozen for two years), they need to pay a large percentage (up to 13 percent). The SRC’s argument is that this change will cause no layoffs to occur so schools can use the money to “hire a full-time counselor and nurse, perhaps, or to pay for more supplies or after-school programs.” The politics might be right here, but I think another key difference is that in Circle of Hope our agreements are based on a covenant of love, not a legally-binding contract. Relationships cannot be replaced by pieces of paper.

Naturally, the teachers who are being abused here are enraged. Some other education advocates also share their rage. Will Bunch is particularly upset—I loved his columnAl Dia wrote brilliantly too. Many of friends also cried foul. But when the rubber hits the road—do we actually care enough to do something? I actually think the people in Circle of Hope care. Here’s why:

  1. It is in our backyard. We realize that every Philadelphian, and every person, is God’s beloved created. Their education matters because their pressing trouble sometimes makes something like participating in a cell seem esoteric. It is not, and God heals the troubled through our love. I think the people in Circle of Hope know that and want to help meet the needs of the least among us.
  2. We have goals, but those goals are not met if we violate our trust relationships. Our agenda is Jesus. Our goal is to help people follow Him. In this world, we find trouble, but Jesus overcomes that trouble. The relationships we have and the way we have them is just an important to the end result. For the SRC, this decision was all about Tom Corbett and his dismal effort at getting re-elected. It was done in a secret meeting that wasn’t advertised very well, in contrast, we’d be hard-pressed to have a meeting that everyone wasn’t invited to and everyone didn’t know about! And if we did, we might consider that a problem. We want to communicate well, not shroud our communication in secrecy because we can’t get along. Unlike the SRC and how it thinks about teachers, I want to offer the people that are gifted to lead around me the dignity, not mistrust.
  3. The body of Christ is protected by the Risen Lord, not a coalition. We don’t have unions in Circe of Hope because we are developing trust. We have a dialogue that connects us, and we don’t need representatives to speak for us. I understand why unions exist—teachers are accused on having cushy jobs, and only working ten months a year, and they’ll retire with great benefits. I think that mentality is totally not Christian, because it is based on a stereotype, which, when living in community, is harder to develop.
  4. We have not lost a sense of public good. In a world filled with are individualized people, right down to how we are educated, Circle of Hope is the alternative. We have public meetings. We want to be known and we want to include everyone. The idea of educating our community or improving our neighborhood schools is not just a nice thought, it is important to us. Jesus transcends the debate between public and private. Everyone among us is his child, and his will is discerned in community.
  5. Jesus’ love is more bigger than the evil in the world is overwhelming. The SRC’s decision adds to a laundry list of evil in the world: income inequality, mass incarceration, systemic racism, perpetual war, and so on. That can be overwhelming. But Jesus’ love is bigger than it. And our expression of His love in community is an expression that helps us overcome all of the evil in the world.

It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to lose faith. It is easy to become indifferent. But Jesus gives us another way.

Here are some things we can do: Be a part of an alternative to how the SRC works. Engage a dialogue. Volunteer at a local school can be helpful. Consider meeting with your local principal and asking how the school needs help (Megan did, and she formed NICE and For the Love of Childs); ask the principal how you can be like Jesus to her! Love your neighborhood as yourself–some of us even want to get our kids to struggling schools to invest in them and our neighborhoods are stakeholders. Don’t discount the power of praying for the school. Action is important, but I think we need to pray as much.

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