The Rev. Joshua C. Robertson
My athletic prowess once opened doors for me, but my academic skills slammed them shut. I could have been another unfortunate statistic as a young Black man whom the system had failed. But fortunately, someone loved and helped me.
I excelled athletically, especially basketball, football, and track. At one point, I had more than 20 Division 1A colleges interested in me.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t read. I matriculated through 12 years of school with only a second-grade reading level. Three times I took the Scholastic Assessment Test. My highest score was 750, and just like that, many scholarships disappeared.
I settled for a small college in North Carolina but wasn’t academically ready. After three semesters, I had a 0.67 grade point average.
After failing out, I was driving to Altoona, Pa., with a friend. During the drive, my bishop at my local church in North Carolina called me, asking when I would return.
“I failed out,” I said. “I’m not coming back.”
He said, “Whatever you’re doing right now, you’re about to ruin your life, aren’t you?”
I was in tears. I was lost. Football and school were over. And the car I was driving had a trunkful of heroin. My bishop was right: I was on the wrong path.
So, he opened his home to me. There, he taught me how to read. Eventually, I enrolled in community college. Then, I attended junior college. Then, I received a full athletic scholarship from the University of Minnesota, where I earned my bachelor’s degree. Finally, in 2021, I received my master’s degree from Evangelical Theological Seminary—with straight A’s.
I mention my grades because it proves that I wasn’t dumb. All I needed was somebody to see my potential and provide a non-traditional educational approach to support me in my academic journey.
My experiences leave me wondering: In a nation as prosperous and creative as ours, why do we use a one-size-fits-all approach to education? Why are parents forced to send their children to schools that cannot accommodate their individual and specific learning needs? Why aren’t we demonstrating our fundamental American values—specifically, our commitments to a rigorous education and the entrepreneurial spirit—that undergird the grand legacy we’ve inherited?
To be clear, I am not attacking teachers or public schools. I know several teachers who want our children to thrive. Unfortunately, we have been unable to do that for all our children in this limited system—and that’s my grave concern.
The solution we always hear is more funding. But we’ve done that time after time. Throwing more money at the system is not working because the system is fundamentally limited. Simply put, we do not have enough educational options for students. We cannot rely upon the kindness and generosity of individuals like my bishop to remedy this predicament.
We must consider what’s best for our students, not the system. We must change this system. We can intentionally choose to work collaboratively across the lines that divide, such as political affiliation or socioeconomic background. We can intentionally investigate creative educational models that work on smaller scales. There is so much that we can and should do.
Without educational choice, people—especially those in under-sourced neighborhoods like the one I pastor—feel hopelessly trapped. During the pandemic, our church fielded about 50 calls per day from desperate parents. Online school wasn’t working for their children, and they didn’t know where else to turn.
I think of the opportunities afforded to me because I could play sports. But what about the kids who don’t play sports? Shouldn’t they be able to attend a school of their choice without finances getting in the way?
I believe in the fundamental dignity of humanity. I believe people want other people to succeed and pursue greatness. I believe all God’s children deserve freedom and opportunity.
I implore those in power—leaders in educational, religious, business, and governmental institutions—to collaborate and provide creative educational opportunities for our youth. It’s why I support initiatives like Lifeline Scholarships, also referred to as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Program, that offer hope to generations of Pennsylvania youth.
The Rev. Joshua C. Robertson is the Senior Pastor of The Rock Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and CEO and Founder of the Black Pastors United for Education.