Charleston’s Freedom School a Step in the Right Direction

By Barney Blakeney 

I’ve always thought that municipal governments should play a more significant role in public education. I was blessed to have come through school at a time when a public school education was as good as almost any other. Although ours was a racially segregated public school system (the current system is just as racially segregated in my opinion) there were dedicated people involved who insured the system produced quality results. Since then, I think the system has eroded to one which produces questionable results at best.

Over the years I’ve asked lawmakers and government officials why more wasn’t being done to maintain the high standard of public education I enjoyed. One state legislator, exemplifying the fragmentation that has evolved in government, said public schools wasn’t their jurisdiction. I thought that was the wrong answer since kids who attend public schools also were his constituents.

Over the past 20 or 30 years I think it’s just tragic how public schools have been allowed to devolve.

I was encouraged when I recently read about the Freedom Schools that will be conducted in Charleston this summer. I had never heard of freedom schools. Fortunately, we’ve got some people in this community who are more about action than rhetoric and publicity. It’s amazing what happens when the right people get on the job.

I got the information about the local Freedom School effort last week. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and members of the Charleston Freedom School Advisory Committee announced the successful fundraising campaign and plans for a Charleston Freedom School, a six-week literacy program this summer for 50 at-risk peninsula students at the Charleston Progressive Academy.

The program provides summer reading enrichment for students who might otherwise not have access to books. The Charleston Freedom School program will help to curb summer learning loss and lessen academic achievement gaps. Another goal is to empower children to make a difference in themselves, their families and their communities. During the summer of 2015, the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools served over 12,375 children at 189 program sites in 96 cities and 29 states.

Coincidentally, I participated in a similar summer school program in 1966 at the same location, which then was Courtney Elementary School. Burke High English teacher, the late Miss Altimeze McGriff, was our teacher. I met Terrence and Ronald in that class. I have no idea how I got in it, but that experience had an unforgettable influence on my life. It was the summer before we all went to high school. In those days we attended elementary school through seventh grade. I guess my teachers at Columbus Street Elementary School enlisted me in the program. Before it was all over, Miss McGriff told my mom I was crazy and suggested I get therapy. Although I attended a different high school from hers, Miss McGriff nurtured me the rest of my life until her death in 2006. Thanks, Miss McGriff.

I learned that Freedom Schools were started by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963. The first schools were conducted in 1964. A lot of folks today could learn from the concepts of MS Ella Baker and SNCC. Dey ain bin no joke! For them, it wasn’t about egos, publicity or who got the credit. They put in the work and got things done! There are some cats out here now doing things that will have an impact.

Among the partners in the current effort who made the announcement were Tecklenburg, Dr. Jon Hale of the College of Charleston, Dr. Fran Welch of the College of Charleston, Darrin Goss of the Coastal Community Foundation, Erica S. Taylor Chief Strategy and Communications Officer of the Charleston County School District and Don Cameron of the Charleston Housing Authority. The list of contributors who made it happen is a laundry list of individuals, businesses and others.

I’m certain Charleston’s Freedom School, which coordinators hope will be duplicated throughout the region, will do what it’s intended. I’m glad to see Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg taking an active role in the effort. I don’t see everything, but I haven’t seen that level of participation in public education from municipal government until now. Schools in Charleston and North Charleston have been in decline for decades and the municipal governments in those cities appeared almost oblivious to the plight of their citizens.

Of course, we all know what time it is. The ugly specter of racism permeates our lives so deeply; nobody gave a damn about the predominantly Black kids who attended those schools, not even Black folks! Yeah I said it! If we cared so much about our kids, how come we allowed two generations of our children to be miseducated and undereducated? Miss McGriff cared so much about me, she didn’t know my mother, but she talked with her and told her to get that boy some help because he had to be crazy to let opportunities for quality education slip between his fingers! That’s how Black folks show love for each other!

I’ll tell you what. Black folks better get on the ball. There’s a fool heading up this country’s administration who cares even less about educating Black folks. It ain’t enough to walk out on Henry McMaster and Betsy DeVos. That makes a statement, but when we’re done protesting, marching and holding press conferences, somebody better be conducting classes.

Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins did it, Ella Baker and SNCC did it. It’s our turn to do it.

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