Ahead of Franklin Park Elementary School’s coming makeover, Black History Month provides the perfect opportunity to look deeper into the historic school’s past.
For 19 years, Gabrielle Babyak has taught classes at Franklin Park Elementary, and every day she touches history.
“We have so many members that are in our community that have either kids that go here or they went here,” Babyak said. “We have Chandrika McIntosh. She has the pharmacy of MLK, and it’s the first African American-owned pharmacy… by a woman, as well. So, that’s incredible. I had her child in my class last year.”
Franklin Park Elementary opened in 1958 when schools in Lee County were still segregated.
“My kids look at me, and they go, ‘You wouldn’t be able to be our teacher,’” Babyak said.
Franklin Park first opened as an all-Black elementary school. In 1970, it was integrated and converted into a middle school before reverting to an elementary school in 1977.
“It was also a migrant camp, so it has been so many things over the years,” said Principal Michelle Freeman. “So, yeah, it was very diversified, and even now.”
Freeman knows the school’s history is rooted in change, yet it has remained a staple for those who walked the halls decades ago.
“We really, truly believe we are the heart of Dunbar because many, many walks of life have come through those doors, and so much history has been established there,” Freeman said.
But it’s only a matter of time before a school that has given so much to a community and to a neighborhood begins to crack. Those cracks have made way for new history to be made at Franklin Park Elementary.
“The community has had, you know, buildings added onto the campus or to enlarge it over the years,” Freeman said. “But for it to be knocked down and completely rebuilt…”
Franklin Park Elementary School is getting its long-awaited rebuild and will open in 2024 as the district’s first true community school.
“My kids that walk back on that campus, it’s gonna be like, ‘this is our house’; they’re gonna have that pride,” Freeman said. “Panther pride, baby. Panther Nation, baby.”
And it will remain a staple in the community because that has always been Franklin Park’s history.
“Our community members are buying bricks, and the bricks are going to be put back into the school… rather, [as] a walkway or a part of the building itself,” Freeman said. “People will be able to come back and touch that brick that has their name on it and say, ‘I went here,’ or their children will be able to come back and say, ‘Oh, that’s my grandmother.’ Yep. So, it’s all about generations and just loving on our families.”