Opinion: Rosa Parks, Barack Obama believed in charter schools

Septembra Williams

Rosa Parks knew that the way to lift African American children out of poverty in Detroit was through education. And she knew that the best way to accomplish that was by starting a charter school.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to note the rich legacy of charter schools in Michigan, and the role they’ve played in helping black and brown students achieve their dreams. So many visionary African American leaders in our state — including Rosa Parks herself — have recognized that a charter school can be the pathway to a better life for children.

Back in 1997, Parks tried to open a charter school in Detroit, to be called the Raymond and Rosa Parks School for Self-Development. “We will include not only the youngsters, but the parents and the adults, as well,” Parks told a reporter at the time. “I am really looking forward to the many good things to be done with our youth, because as you know, we have to be very careful with our young people.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands beside Rosa Parks at a dinner given in her honor in Birmingham, Ala. in 1965.

The first lady of the civil rights movement spent her entire life working to improve the lives of others, and that’s what she was attempting to do with her new charter school.

President Bill Clinton was so impressed that he said in a speech to the NAACP on July 17, 1997, “I am pleased that Rosa Parks, who taught us a lot about dignity and equality, is now working to open a charter school in Detroit. And I urge you to consider doing so in your communities. If you believe it will help, the Department of Education will help you.”

Sadly, the politics of the day got in the way, and Parks’ charter school was not able to open. Her application to the Detroit Public Schools to authorize the school was killed before it even got to the board table for a vote. Even Parks herself was not able to overcome the political bias against charter schools.

However, hundreds of other charter schools were able to open in Michigan, including my school, Arts & Technology Academy of Pontiac.

Like most charter schools in southeast Michigan, the vast majority of our students are black and Hispanic children, most of whom live in poverty and very challenging circumstances. We provide them all with a safe and loving environment, and an education that fits their individual needs.

We work to educate the whole child, and we have an innovative curriculum that includes art, music, drama, dance and foreign languages. We integrate the arts and technology into everything we do, and our students thrive as a result.

Our students and families don’t care about the politics of charter schools — they only care about the loving and caring environment we provide, and the results they see every day.

As we celebrate Black History Month at Arts & Technology Academy of Pontiac, we take great pride in the accomplishments of brave and visionary pioneers like Rosa Parks.

It’s also worth noting that Barack Obama, the first African American president, was a huge supporter of charter schools, Williams writes.

It’s also worth noting that Barack Obama, the first African American president, was a huge supporter of charter schools, as well.

On that topic, Obama once said, “In an economy where knowledge is our most valuable asset, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity — it is an imperative. Our children only get one chance at an education, and charter schools demonstrate what is possible when States, communities, teachers, parents and students work together.”

There’s only one school in Michigan that’s named for Obama — the Barack Obama Leadership Academy in Detroit.

It’s a charter school.

That’s fitting. The president who showed all of us what’s possible when we dream big knew that the hopes and dreams of our children shouldn’t be tied down, either.

Septembra Williams is the superintendent of Arts & Technology Academy of Pontiac, a public charter school.