School districts celebrated Martin Luther King Day in different ways in the Brainerd lakes area.

Most-beyond setting aside class time and curriculum items in social studies and history courses-scheduled Monday to be a teacher in-service day or closed their doors entirely. However, two districts made a point of celebrating the day commemorating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as engaging their students in a discussion on what the civil rights movement meant and how it still resonates in the national consciousness.

Pine River-Backus School District

Shaun Howard, a coach and student council adviser at Pine River-Backus School District, said he never understood the practices common to education institutions in the area. Typically, the day is either cast as just another school day, or scheduled as a short respite from classes, if not an in-service day for teachers who don't get time off.

"As an African-American, I grew up in California, and I come to Minnesota and I was like, 'This made zero sense to me,'" Howard said during a phone interview. "'Why this day? Why do every year we have to have an in-service on this day? We do nothing to teach these kids. Look at this growing violence, look at the inner cities, look at what these kids are watching and doing on a daily basis, yet we're not educating them at all.'"

This prompted Howard to advocate for greater participation in the federal holiday by the Pine River-Backus School District. He did so through submitting comments or speaking privately with school officials.

In turn, his efforts led Principal Chris Halverson to describe Howard as "the driving force" behind the school's extensive and varied schedule. Howard credited faculty in the district as being at the forefront of positive changes the area is making to recognize America's past, both at its lighter and darker points.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m Monday, kindergarten through 12th-grade students at Pine River-Backus participated in events ranging from watching the Jackie Robinson biopic "42," to having intimate small-group sessions with a bevy of speakers on difficult, real-world concepts-like blended families, social media or women in the workplace-as well as musical performances and prepared speeches.

It was, in Howard's estimation, more than simply honoring Martin Luther King Jr.'s role as a civil rights icon for African-Americans, but honoring the legacy of a man who fought for equality in all its myriad forms.

"He wanted to change. He wanted equality whether it was man/women, black/white or Catholic/Jewish, it didn't matter," Howard said. "He just wanted to change views. He wanted everyone to get alone, to work together for the best of America, or for that matter, for mankind."

However, it's an ongoing struggle. Howard said he feels children today are not getting the education they need and deserve to address the issues King staked his life upon and remain relevant to this day. As more and more years separate students from the civil rights movement and King's death on April 4, 1968, the issue is losing the immediacy of memory and fading into the dusty annals of historical record.

"Kids nowadays have lost focus on what it was all about because it was so long ago and it was kind of pushed aside," said Howard, who added parents often teach their children to not say racial slurs, yet never distinguish why they shouldn't use these terms versus other vulgarities. "All they really grasp, 'Oh, you shouldn't say the word n-----,' not why or what it meant. ... They don't understand the rationale. They don't understand what (King) was fighting for or what was going on."

Howard said he's seeing more and more people in the area, educators especially, recognize the need to address issues of race and equality. He added these encounters encourage him and lead him to believe regions like the Brainerd lakes area, which are populated by small towns, can be "the launching pad for a better America."

Crosslake Community Charter School

At Crosslake Community Charter School, students took the holiday off-in contrast, Director Todd Lyscio said, to prior years when students have taken part in rallies and organized activities during which the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr. are explored at length.

Instead, Lyscio said January-which the school intentionally identified as a month of service, to honor King-is slated to include service projects such as volunteering at senior housing centers, crafting blankets for crisis nurseries or donating to local food banks.

"We don't want it to be a single day or even a month, we just earmark that particular day or earmark this week, but for me it goes way beyond that, it's about his work, his life's work," Lyscio said in a phone interview.

Lyscio said this falls in line with King's philosophy of compassion, taking care of one's neighbors, especially in service to the community.

"'The most urgent and compelling question is: What are you doing for others?'" Lyscio said, invoking a quote attributed to the civil rights icon. "That's a message we want to share with our kids and that's a message that we really continue to push that idea of service."

Lately, the issue of race has often risen to a national discussion where it revolves around the concepts of equality, systemic oppression and economic disadvantages, Lyscio said. While he considers these important issues, he added it's important to remember the basis of treating people fairly irrespective of skin color can be broken down into a simple matter of compassion and human decency-concepts that pertain to all issues of inequality, whether based on race, gender or class. Lyscio said he fears that's getting lost in the shuffle.

"There are a lot of social issues," Lyscio said. "Because we are in outstate Minnesota-there isn't a ton of racial disparity necessarily-but there is a huge range of disparity on the economic front, the kind of opportunities kids have at home. To me, it's about helping our kids."