Late last year, I was made aware of the dire situation surrounding Smith-Barnes Elementary School in Henry County.
In October, Superintendent of Henry County Schools Ethan Hildreth made his recommendation to remove the current students from Smith-Barnes in order to place Patrick Henry Academy, an alternative school, at the historic elementary school. This proposal sparked outrage from the community and myself. This storied school is a nationally recognized School of Excellence with a diverse student body and a reputation for being one of the best schools in Henry County. As with most things, a closer inspection revealed startling findings that jeopardize the preservation of a truly unique landmark in African-American and Georgia’s history.
To better understand the significance of Smith-Barnes and its impact on our community, it is important to understand how this elementary school came into existence. During the days of our state’s “separate but equal” doctrine, African-American children were sent to schools that were sub-par when compared to their white counterpoints, to say the least. During those times, white schools were disproportionally funded at much higher rates than black schools, leaving children of color with little hope of gaining a sound education for a brighter future.
For over 60 years, Smith-Barnes Elementary has stood as a reminder of the struggle and triumph of African-Americans in this great state. At a time when the majority of black Georgians worked as sharecroppers and household staff, their children were receiving an outstanding education comparable to white children in neighboring schools. They were being educated to grow and prosper and make a better life for themselves; something that was unimaginable only a generation before them. Over the years, this school has come to embody the multicultural makeup of our great state and country with various races, religions, and backgrounds represented. This school is part of the community and this community is part of the school.
The school system has stated that moving the current students at Smith-Barnes would save taxpayers $400,000 which amounts to .0014% of the total budget of $293 million. Further, Gov. Nathan Deal has recently committed more than half a billion dollars for our secondary education system, portions of which will go to Henry County within the calendar year. So, we must ask ourselves: Why should we discard our heritage in this wonderful place of education? Do the proposed cost savings actually have merit? And, are there other areas of cost savings that have been ignored? Educators should be in the business of teaching history, not destroying it.
The people of Henry County have united in opposition against this seemingly reckless proposal to destroy African-American history. I’m calling on all people of goodwill to join this fight to keep Smith-Barnes in tact to allow children the opportunity to stay in the school they hold so dear. Our voices will not be silenced and we will continue to march towards a resolution that keeps Smith-Barnes Elementary in our community for generations to come.
Schools should be teaching education, not destroying it.
Sen. Emanuel Jones represents the 10th Senate District, which includes portions of DeKalb and Henry counties. This letter has been edited for publication.