Empty Classroom
By: Gwen Hamilton

A New Year, A New Promise

Fifty years ago this summer in Mississippi, the movement to expand civil rights and equality to African Americans and others in the Deep South undertook an urgent and relentless campaign.  Local and national champions converged to promote change through sit-ins and speeches, boycotts and bus tours.

Reflecting on that movement, I continue to be inspired by the effort of local communities and partners from across the country to establish Freedom Schools.  These schools were created to offer education alternatives to students and families who had been denied the ability to receive a high quality education.  Students and educators gathered in church basements and living rooms, explored concepts forbidden in the segregated schools of the South, and built new educational institutions that strengthened community ties and support.

Two important points stand out for me from this history.  First, I am in awe of the courage individuals displayed to fight for greater opportunities despite physical and emotional oppression.  Second, the stories of the efforts to establish and maintain Freedom Schools demonstrates both the humility and sheer will of both communities and outsiders to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and be willing to overcome differences and partner to collectively achieve shared goals of better educational outcomes.

While Freedom Summer and the Freedom Schools did much to fuel the movement to ensuring all citizens had the right to participate in democracy, states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and the rest of the South still struggle to realize meaningful change in opportunities and outcomes – particularly when it comes to educating students of color and those who grow up with little means.

It’s difficult in the midst of such polarizing debate about the future of education at the district, state, and national levels to see a path to meaningful change for specific students in specific schools – schools right here in Baton Rouge for our kids.  Despite this contentious noise, we at New Schools for Baton Rouge wake up every day thinking about those students and schools that want most to have the highest quality education possible.

As we start the new school year, we hope to draw upon the spirit of and learn from the lessons of Freedom Schools 50 years ago and act with courage, humility, and focus to ensure that all students realize meaningful change in opportunities and outcomes regardless of the zip code in which they live.

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