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Responding to the Call for Educational Justice: Transformative Catholic-Led Initiatives in Urban Education

reviewed by Albert Cheng - November 05, 2019

coverTitle: Responding to the Call for Educational Justice: Transformative Catholic-Led Initiatives in Urban Education
Author(s): L. Mickey Fenzel and Melodie Wyttenbach
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641134305, Pages: 194, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

There has been no shortage of urban school reform efforts dedicated to improving the outlook of urban youth. After twenty years of state and federal backed initiatives around school accountability and teacher evaluation, the results have at times been fruitful but more often lackluster. Gaps in achievement, educational attainment, and socioeconomic indicators remain. Sweeping technical solutions that efficiently improve educational outcomes of historically underserved students remain elusive.

Yet amidst these large-scale efforts are many smaller-scale, lesser-known efforts by Catholic communities that have touched the lives of countless youth. L. Mickey Fenzel and Melodie Wyttenbach have assembled a team of authors, all of whom are intimately involved with these efforts, to tell their stories in Responding to the Call for Educational Justice: Transformative Catholic-Led Initiatives in Urban Education.

Fenzel and Wyttenbach cover a diverse range of Catholic-led initiatives, from large school networks such as NavitityMiguel and Cristo Rey to standalone schools like St. Benedict’s Prep. It not only describes Catholic schools but other educational institutions including the Catholic-inspired Catalyst charter schools, auxiliary organizations such as the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers Americorps, and Homeboys of Hope, a gang intervention program.  Readers are even brought to South America to learn about Fe and Alegrìa schools.

All of these efforts were initiated by everyday people — teachers, principals, clergy, student volunteers, business people — moved by their Catholic faith to “speak out for those who cannot speak… defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition). These people recognized that something was not good, dared to imagine something different, and began sojourning towards that vision, even if they were not completely certain how to get there.

Like their efforts, many of these people would otherwise remain largely unknown if not for this book. Their work has not often been featured on the front page of national media outlets. Nor have the anecdotes of the students they touched gone viral on social media. Regardless, these stories of laboring for the cause of justice and human dignity deserve to be recounted. In a world where people clearly recognize that all is not as it should be, this book inspires hope.

At the same time, the volume is not naively idealistic. It does not sugarcoat the struggles and challenges its characters faced. It is not only a hopeful book but an honest one. While each chapter features fruitful smaller-scale efforts to serve urban youth, it does not claim to offer the Holy Grail of solutions for urban communities. While each contributor recounts the triumphs of educators and community leaders, they do not hide setbacks, failures, and mistakes. For instance, one of the chapters celebrates the work of Cristo Rey schools and engages in critical self-reflection about how they can improve the difficult but necessary conversations about race that they have with their students.

I found the honesty that characterizes this volume quite valuable for co-laborers in education. Accounts of the dissolution and eventual re-founding of NavityMiguel’s national organization or the Chicago-style political challenges that the Board of Directors of San Miguel Schools faced when starting a Catholic-inspired charter school offer practical lessons for building institutions that serve underserved youth. More importantly, however, the disappointments and struggles described in each chapter are a healing balm for educators and leaders who may be flirting with disillusionment and exhausted from being on the frontlines of serving urban communities. The triumphs and trials discussed in each chapter remind readers that the work of justice, service, and seeking the good of others is a difficult road. The journey requires dedication, patience, faithfulness, and a willingness to follow in the example of Christ who sacrificed all for the sake of others.

Even so, the travails of such a journey are worth it. Chapters are replete with anecdotes and testimonies of students recounting the ways teachers, mentors, and programs altered the trajectories of their lives because of an educational opportunity that they otherwise would not have had.

It would be inappropriate to read this book as a social scientific exercise in search of the Holy Grail of solutions for solving the challenges that plague urban communities. Similarly, the book is not an argument for a particular policy like school choice, even if it acknowledges how charter schools and vouchers have made some Catholic-led efforts possible. This book is not about the advantages of Catholic schools over other schooling options. Rather, it calls all people together for the cause of human dignity and justice.

Responding to the Call for Educational Justice is a telling of the messy, gradual, and not-so-systematic slog towards a better future for underserved youth and their communities. The message is countercultural in a world obsessed with expediently identifying and implementing efficient, technocratic solutions.

Unlike technocratic solutions, the enterprises described in each chapter are deeply human. The efforts are often characterized by terms like “family,” “caring,” “trust,” “community,” or “personal relationships.” Perhaps it is no accident that every chapter identifies numerous persons by name. Stories of alumni of NativityMiguel schools returning to mentor younger students, or teachers and principals following up to support former NativityMiguel middle-school students after they have gone off to college reveal the kind of personal commitment within these organizations. Moreover, these Catholic organizations invoke the principle of subsidiarity to afford educators, volunteers, and others in direct contact with urban youth with the freedom to consider a variety of contextual details and discern how to best respond to complex needs and circumstances.

On a number of occasions, I was reminded of Martin Buber’s I-Thou and I-It framework. In the former, two beings experience each other in a shared, dignified relationship; in the latter, one being reduces the other to a mere object. Educational initiatives in the former framework do things with urban communities, but under the latter they do things to them. Only in an I-Thou relationship would the one with greater power condescend to meet the other. The Catholic-led efforts described in the book demonstrate the power of I-Thou relationships and the approaches to transform the lives of underserved youth. Readers with an open heart and mind may just be renewed and inspired to follow in the humble and faithful example of the large cast of characters documented in this book.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 05, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23130, Date Accessed: 11/11/2019 7:28:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Albert Cheng
    University of Arkansas
    E-mail Author
    ALBERT CHENG, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of education policy at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and affiliated senior research fellow with Cardus. His research focuses on school choice policy, faith-based schooling, and character formation. He recently co-authored an Educational Researcher article reviewing the assessment of social-emotional competencies as well as a study published in Youth and Society on the civic outcomes of adults educated in faith-based schools.
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