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United Black Christians honors education advocate

Rhonda Crowder | 8/23/2013, 2:45 p.m.

Just a few Fridays ago, over lunch on the patio at Nighttown Restaurant in Cleveland Heights, members of the Cleveland Chapter of the United Black Christians (UBC) – the African American arm of the United Church of Christ (UCC) – honored one Jan Ressenger for the work she’s done on behalf of public education.

Ressenger, who recently retired from her role as minister for public education witness/economic justice team at the United Church of Christ headquartered in downtown Cleveland, worked with UBC members for over 15 years on various education initiatives.

“We talked a lot about closing achievement gaps,” said Ressenger. “We were trying to change the conversation from the ‘test and punish’ approach by shifting the attention to investing in resources.”

According to Ressenger, the alternative conversation should include discussion around improving existing schools as oppose to closing them, supporting teachers, and investing in schools in the nation’s poorest big cities such as Chicago and Detroit. “That’s got to be the agenda,” she said.

“There’s a need for diversity and role modeling but we’re not talking about that,” she added.

Ressenger, a former educator as well, said children need a challenging curriculum, pre-school, strong teachers, and the instruments necessary for learning. But, often times, she feels as though no one is listening to her – except members of the UBC.

“UBC has been the most attentive of all the UCC groups,” she said. “UBC has embraced this issue and is committed to continuing the conversation. I’ve been so grateful to UBC.”

One reason she’s expressed such gratitude to UBC, she considers the attack on public education as an attack on the Black middle class.

“This is not aimed at Chargin Falls. This is aimed at Cleveland. This is aimed at Cleveland Heights. This is aimed at Euclid… This affects Black families. It’s not affecting the affluent communities at all,” said Ressenger. “There’s no way the UCC could address this issue without UBC.”

It’s a proven fact that social economic status is tied to academic achievement, she said. “We’re going to have to make some changes in our society.”

In terms of justice in public education, Ressenger believes it has to be systemic, we can’t do it one school at a time. “We need people to stand up and advocate for the alternative conversations.”

She went on to discuss the trend toward the privatization of schools. Simply put, she sees K-12 education as “open for business.” And quite frankly, that disturbs her.

“Parents need to know that there are real concerns around charter schools,” she said. “At least in public schools, you always have the power to get involved.”

According to Carol Brown, the immediate past national president for the United Black Christians, Ressenger has been UBC’s go-to person for resources as well as facts and how to interpret those facts.

“For one thing, Jan has been extremely clear on the inequalities in education for all children, especially Black children,” said Brown. She also said Ressenger has the ability to talk about achievement gaps from perspective of economic, health, and criminal justice drivers.

And, she’s done so by participating in both local and national workshops and meetings.

Although Ressenger worked on various policies surrounding education, said Brown, she’s good about providing ideas for programming as well. “She’s not lopsided. She sees the whole picture.”

Brown went on to say Ressenger provided UBC with the building blocks to help them move toward some resolve. “Now, UBC is taking the steps to have something to put before the General Synod in two years,” said Brown.

Of Ressenger’s retirement, she said, “She has never changed since I’ve known her. By no means is she retiring completely from education. She will be involved in one way or another.”

Before concluding the lunch, teary eyed by the honor received from people she now considers longtime, dear friends, Ressenger said to the members of UBC, “Please, continue to hold the church accountable.”