In an introductory entry for CACE on the topic of Christian schooling in the city, Dan Olson highlighted the cultural, missiological and visceral reasons why urban Christian education will continue to grow in importance. His piece presents the foundational reasons why cities need Christian education.
This entry in the discussion focuses on the issue of affordability and sustainability in urban Christian education. While these are ongoing issues wherever Christian education is found, urban Christian education poses unique challenges as they typically serve disadvantaged communities in a setting where the quality of education is often determined by zip code and injustice traps many students in failing schools. A relatively new effort—Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education—is a Chicago-based nonprofit that may serve as an example of affordability and sustainability for other urban areas.
The urban education scene in Chicago is anything but stable. In the past year alone the Chicago Public School system shuttered many schools, sending students from one neighborhood to another nearby school as a large-scale cost saving effort. The Chicago Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church closed nearly a dozen schools under its jurisdiction for financial reasons. At the same time the growth in charter schools slowed as a major charter operation was exposed for shoddy management and nepotism at the highest levels. This is today’s context for urban Christian schooling, where schools often compete with the growing charter movement, or carry out their mission in costly or cramped facilities.
I arrived at the office one morning and noticed something out of the ordinary: a permanent bike-sharing rental station, one of hundreds installed around Chicago. For an annual membership fee or by the hour, you may pick up a bike at one rental location and drop it again near your destination. It’s an experiment in urban commuting and environmental awareness, promoting economic recovery, reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality.
It also serves to remind me that those of us who love and support Christian education need to be nimble and creative in how we serve it and promote it. The bike-sharing program would have been laughed at not that long ago. Today it stands as a feasible effort in addressing urban problems.
The same holds true for urban Christian education. When challenged by well-funded charter operations, or changing patterns of financial support, or aging donor bases, we need to recognize we can’t keep doing the same thing in the same way and expect different results.
In the midst of this changing scene stand the nine schools of the Bright Promise Fund network. Bright Promise Fund enriches Chicago and its neighborhoods through schools of character, conviction and achievement by providing new and sustaining sources of revenue for affiliated Christian schools. We serve as a fundraising arm for these schools, raising scholarship and tuition assistance funding for each school. Operating expenses for Bright Promise Fund come from three sources: an estate gift which established an ongoing endowment, gifts from corporate and family foundations, and the support of our Board of Directors. All funds raised go directly to the schools. Last year—our fifth year–$175,000 was distributed among the nine schools, blessing many families, students, and growing school enrollments.
Our donor base has grown beyond traditional supporters of Christian education, reaching into the many young and older Christians who live in or work in the city of Chicago, including the young professionals who are graduates of Christian colleges and universities and understand the importance of Christian education at all levels. In addition, many Christian couples with children immediately understand the importance of strong Christian education options in the city. Urban churches notice young parents migrating to the suburbs if good options don’t exist in the city.
In our first years of operation it became clear to us that more could be done to assist network schools in leadership and professional development. Conversations with Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights IL, led to the establishment of the Center for Christian Urban Educators. In collaboration with Trinity, and under the very capable leadership of Harriet Potoka, the Center also provides a forum for mutual support and encouragement, prayers and the sharing of best practices. Administrators and teachers find the Center to be a valuable resource and arena for enrichment in an often lonely urban landscape.
Our goal? To assist these Bright Promise Fund schools financially and academically, helping them to move from viability to sustainability for the long haul. For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom. And for the kids of the Kingdom who meet Jesus Christ in their school each day.
Our track record? We began with seven schools, added five more, saw two close, and disaffiliated with one. Each year our donor base grows and schools are able to offer more funds to students and families, making urban Christian education an affordable option.
We believe that good schools make for good neighborhoods, and bad schools make for bad neighborhoods. Beside the social capital that the schools of the Bright Promise Fund bring to communities, the witness to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings hope and a presence. Cities need more schools like these.
If you’d like to know more about the origins of Bright Promise Fund or the rich diversity of schools we serve, please visit www.brightpromisefund.org, or contact me directly. Like the Children’s Jubilee Fund in Philadelphia, our vision is to foster a united witness to the transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it lives in urban Christian education.