Bridging Selma

Fledgling School Hopes to be an Integrated Alternative

Shania Black, 12, was the first black student to attend all-white Morgan Academy, a school founded on the heels of integration in the ’60s, as white families pulled their children out of the public schools.

Though she wasn’t threatened herself, she says that other students she carpooled with were bullied for being friends with her and their families received death threats.

“I’m glad I that I didn’t know about that then,” she said. “But now I’m happy that I did that because after that year another girl that was African American came to that school, too, and I think me going there helped other African American families know that they could go there, too.”

That was in 2008, when Black became the first African American student at the private school that had been all-white since its founding in 1965. She stayed there until this year when she moved to the Freedom Academy, a brand new school run by volunteers from a nonprofit, community-based organization called The Freedom Foundation.

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Selma Community Church sits on the corner of Selma Avenue and Franklin Street. It is a typical-looking Southern church that was built in 1906.

But inside the doors, an unexpected scene unfolds each day: A group of children are laughing, talking, eating lunch and preparing for their speech class.

This is Selma’s Freedom Academy, an innovative school that provides an alternative option to traditional education where kids get to explore their passions.

The residents of Selma find their city stuck in the past.

“In some ways, [the civil rights battle in] Selma helped the whole world but Selma got left behind,” said Lee Farnsworth, who is the unofficial principal of the Freedom Academy. “If you look around, a lot of things haven’t changed that much since 1965.”

Created by the Freedom Foundation, which many members of the church are part of, the Freedom Academy is only in its first year of operation. It was created to help close the gap between black students and their white counterparts in Dallas County through enrichment programs and regular academics.

“We wanted to provide an alternative,”said Farnsworth.  She cited the re-segregation of the system and lack of quality education, but also added, “Even in a good school district, there’s a very regimented way that kids learn.”

Robert Botello, right, adjusts the microphone for a student during the Freedom Academy's speech class. Photo by Benjamin McKnight III

Robert Botello, right, adjusts the microphone for a student during the Freedom Academy’s speech class.
Photo by Benjamin McKnight III

There are only eight students at the school now and all of the teachers are volunteers. Students are between eight and 12 years old and all in one classroom.

The Freedom Academy focuses on traditional school subjects such as math and science, but also allows students to “explore what they are interested in,” Farnsworth said.

Robert Botello, another instructor, added that the one of the goals of their curriculum is to teach the students “life-applicable skills” in a way that’s enjoyable for them. “It’s really giving kids an opportunity to explore the things they love, discover passions, and then learn about them.”

“We made a garden in the back, that was really fun,” said Shania Black. In addition, she’s enjoyed a new sense of mobility since joining the school. “Now that I’m in this school, I have a lot of freedom to go to other places,” she said. “At the other schools I would get bullied when I danced in the hallways and stuff,” she said. “But I can do that here and people won’t judge me.”

This past weekend, Shania Black traveled to Wisconsin with other students in a Freedom Foundation after school program to perform in front of 900 fifth graders in Eau Claire. The after school program, called Random Acts of Theater Company (RatCo) is for students who like to act and do theatre productions. Every year they produce a show. These have included Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and High School Musical, the Play.

The next step for many of those working in the school for now is expansion. “That’s my hope and expectation, that it gets bigger that we can actually accept more students,” said Tylisa Black, Shania’s mother, who currently volunteers as the school’s physical education teacher. “Hopefully, someday, we can pay all of our teachers; have our own building and our own space.”

The Freedom Foundation purchased the Tepper’s Building on Broad Street in 2007. Volunteers did demolition on the building and now the group is attempting to raise the $2 million needed to finish the renovations and turn it into a youth center, which will include a healthy café, a rehearsal space for RatCo, a community space for literacy classes and community education, as well as the national headquarters for the Foundation.

Story and video by Benjamin McKnight III and Shaleah Ingram

Benjamin

Benjamin McKnight III
MSU student

Shaleah

Shaleah Ingram
WVU student