Baton Rouge Parents Magazine

A Place for People to Come: The Impact of Zion City School

Baton Rouge would not be the city it is today without the African-American men and women who chose to fight for justice. From being the first city in the US to have a bus boycott in 1953 to hosting one of the most influential sit-ins in the southeast at the downtown Kress building, many historical locations and figures have left lasting legacies in Louisiana’s capital city. These advances expanded into the education sector as Baton Rouge is home to the largest historically black university in the nation, Southern University, and figures, such as Odell S. Williams, were known for advocating for teaching Black History in school. There are countless civil rights stories – some never told – intertwined throughout the greater Baton Rouge region. The Zion City community, established in 1920, is a perfect example of unseen people creating hidden legacies. Located on Ford Street, the neighborhood might be small, but its educational impact has been significant for African-American students.

Simmone Higginbotham, a lifetime resident of Zion City and local historian, is dedicated to passing down stories from past generations. She explains how the history of Zion City and its school is marked with service and selflessness. The first Zion City School opened in 1951, nearly thirty years after the neighborhood was founded. Before the school opened, children had to walk long distances to receive education because there was no school nearby. So, instead of waiting for the city or parish to intervene, Zion City residents decided to build the school. Beyond the average elementary school, Zion City School quickly became an anchor in the community. It was the hosting grounds for community events and a refuge during hurricanes. The school was “a place for people to come” states Higginbotham.

This mantra became more evident beyond the schools installment when Zion City School opened its doors to students outside of the neighborhood. In the 1950s, ExxonMobil’s new North Baton Rouge location took over the nearby Dixie community school. Higginbotham shares how the “African-American community got together and started busing the kids from Dixie” to Zion City. “They had lost their place, and our school became their home,” states Higginbotham, “and it’s still the same today.” Even after 72 years, Zion City School remains a vibrant melting pot, drawing children from diverse city corners. It is a place where children can seek education and a sense of family. “It’s a full circle moment for me…. when I look at the zip codes of the different students that come… a school that once opened its doors to others is still doing that today,” said Higginbotham. The students’ variety of addresses and zip codes show the school continues to embody a welcoming environment where children can fulfill their educational needs.

The original Zion City School closed in 1982 due to desegregation and bussing. Since its closure, the campus had not held the title “Zion City School” for 41 years. In the summer of 2023, the charter school prevously known as Glen Oaks Middle underwent an identity change when the Redesign Schools of Louisiana (RSL) Board voted to reinstall the name Zion City School. This decision was made to honor the neighborhood’s citizens and educational history. Today, Zion City School: A Redesign School, operates as a middle school and works hard to preserve the school’s legacy. Higginbotham was one of the many alumni who gathered back at the school’s campus last April to commemorate the new era of Zion City School. “We had generations come back to the school… I saw people I haven’t seen in decades,” says Higginbotham. Now, Higginbotham serves as Community Liaison for Zion City School and works with RSL superintendent, Dr. Megan McNamara, to create opportunities for the school to impact the community more than it already has. “I’ve been involved in the community all my life because my mother and grandmother were very big on giving back,” said Higginbotham. Through the school, the Zion City community offers meals at the Recreation Center every weekday, along with other extended support.

To learn more about Zion City Elementary: A Redesign School of Louisiana, visit their website.