Praying for Improvement: Reuniting Church and State

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On Wednesday, February 28, the Christian Activities Council in conjunction with Hartford Public Schools hosted a community forum “… about the important role the faith community can play in education”.  Unconventional times call for unconventional measures.  Despite the traditionally perceived threat of a merger between church and state, Dr. Christina Kishimoto calls upon faith based organizations to promote Hartford Public School initiatives to improve student achievement.   An event room at the Hartford Seminary on Lorraine Street was two thirds full with community organizers, parents, and educators.  Reverend Edwin Ayala, Executive Director of the Christian Activities Council and Dr. Christina Kishimoto, Superintendent of Hartford Public Schools worked together to facilitate the discussion and respond to audience commentary.

When Dr. Kishimoto took the floor, she gave a touching account of her childhood experiences in church.  She grew up in a South Bronx housing project to immigrant parents, neither of whom had a high school diploma.  Dr. Kishimoto recalls, “For my family, church played an important role in navigating schools.”  For her family, religion was a catalyst for academic success.  She says that ultimately she, her mother, father, and brother attended college at the same time.  She attributes her family’s scholastic achievement to their strong ties to each other and to their church congregation.

“I’m putting the Superintendent hat aside”, she says.  “I am now speaking as a resident about how my faith shaped the way I see the world.”  She speaks passionately about the importance of prayer in her household.  She confesses that what keeps her up at night is knowing that there are children growing up without strong values or family ties.  Dr. Kishimoto asserts that those ties and values can be found in religious organizations.  She asks the question of the evening, “How do we come together in an organized way to bring what faith based community can bring?”.

Reverend Ayala exclaims, “As people of faith, we are stories people.  We need to share stories of success in Hartford Public Schools.  We could preach and share signs of hope with our congregations”.

The room buzzes with excitement.  Reverend Ayala suggests that church leaders can promote academic success within their congregation by asking to see student report cards after church services.  Dr. Kishimoto chimes in and volunteers to visit churches and speak with church members in middle and end of student grading periods.

Captain Brian Thomas from the Hartford North End Salvation Army makes a plea for more volunteers to help with homework during their after school program.  He has only 3 or 4 volunteers for the 20 grade school children currently enrolled.  A gentleman in the audience asks if churches would be willing to recruit congregation members to join Big Brothers Big Sisters.  An idea is born and all seemed to be in favor.  Dr. Kishimoto informs the audience that Hartford Public Schools is already in contact with Andy Fleishmann, President and CEO of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, and she welcomes the churches’ help in supporting their mission to provide Hartford Public School students with strong mentors.

Over the course of the two and a half hour long forum concerns were voiced, ideas were spun, connections were made, and hope was sparked.  Within the city of Hartford, religious organizations abound.  Dr. Kishimoto is working with them to include Hartford students in their outreach efforts by providing support to neighborhood parents and services to their children.

If Dr. Kishimoto and Reverend Ayala are able to garner the active support of Hartford’s churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues, students will stand to gain tremendously.  Religion may be a key to redemption for Hartford Public Schools, after all.

Karen is a Trinity College IDP student majoring in Educational Studies.  She is a graduate of Weaver High School and a Hartford resident.