Harding Academy of Memphis celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with a renewed focus on its main campus in East Memphis on Cherry Road.
The school is wrapping up the first wave of major renovations to the campus, and more are in the early planning stages for the next few years.
“Our vision has shifted within the past year as far as staying in Memphis and continuing to be a school that plays a role in the progress of Memphis,” said Allen Gillespie, Harding’s admissions and community relations director.
“We realized that what once was viewed as one of our greatest challenges is, in fact, one of our greatest strengths,” said Trent Williamson, who took over as president of Harding Academy in March. “We have a unique opportunity to continue providing a top-quality college preparatory education in a Christian context that will not only impact the students that we serve but our community as well.”
The academy had announced plans to move its main campus to Lakeland in 2005. They bought a large parcel of land and began to make preparations, but the economy tanked in 2008 and the project stalled.
“As time passed, we realized that it really was not the right move to make,” said Gillespie, who believes new proposed municipal school districts might have been a detrimental blow to a new school built in Lakeland.
So instead of building in Lakeland, in early 2011 the school began a $1.7 million first phase of renovations at its Cherry Road campus, working with Fleming/Associates/Architects PC and Linkous Construction LLC to redesign the lobby, main hallway, and some bathrooms and classrooms, as well as create a state-of-the-art chemistry lab.
“We are also finishing up work this week on a brand new entrance to the school that will replace designs that have been there since the late 1950s,” Gillespie said. “It should provide a fresh first impression when entering the campus. Additionally, this past summer our weight room was transformed into a one-of-a-kind strength training facility. You’re not going to find another high school in Tennessee that’s going to have quite the setup for strength training that we have.”
A grand opening dedication for both the new entrance and strength training facility is slated for Oct. 12 when Harding hosts its 60th anniversary homecoming game against Bishop Byrne.
Williamson is working with Fleming architects on preliminary plans to renovate the rest of the Cherry Road campus over the next few years.
Harding Academy’s rich history in Memphis dates to 1952, when it opened as Memphis Christian School (then the city’s only co-ed K-6 school) in the Highland Street Church of Christ building. In 1957 Harding College in Searcy, Ark., assumed control of the school and changed its name to Memphis Harding Academy. The following year the school moved to the Cherry Road location.
Much of Harding’s growth during the 1960s and 1970s is attributed to former school president Dr. Harold Bowie (president from 1961-1998), who had the idea to house elementary school classes out of various church buildings around town where Bible classroom space was not being used during weekdays.
“He developed a great business model where costs were really low, and classes were in neighborhoods close to where the families lived so they didn’t have to drive across town,” Gillespie said.
Bonnie Jamerson, head of Harding’s Lower School (first through sixth grades), was hired in 1973 – the tumultuous year court-ordered busing was instituted in Memphis to help integrate schools – as the school’s second African-American teacher.
In Jamerson’s initial job interview, Bowie asked her how she was going to handle any parents who might treat her differently because she was not white. Jamerson said, “I’m going to focus on teaching the children. I don’t have time to worry about the silliness of adults.”
Several years later she found out a handful of Harding families had withdrawn their children before the start of school when they found out an African-American teacher would be at Harding’s Whitehaven location.
“While we lost a handful of families, within five years we grew to become the largest private school in the country,” she said. “And during my 40 years at Harding I’ve only experienced a loving environment where the color of my skin was never an issue.”
The academy separated from Harding College in 1978 and became an independent school, Harding Academy of Memphis Inc., under the direction of its own board of directors.
By 1996 Harding had opened the first standalone elementary facility in Cordova and then expanded that campus in 2001 with the addition of a 54,000-square-foot building.
Today the academy’s total enrollment stands at 1,176 students in grades K-12 as well as an early childhood development program that starts at 18 months of age. The school employs roughly 105 full-time teachers at its Upper School (grades 7-12 at the Cherry Road campus) and Lower Schools (early development through sixth grade at its Cordova and East Memphis-Colonial Road locations).
The school currently touts standout achievements on both the academic and athletic fronts. For example, Alec Anderson, a Harding student since age 2 who is now a senior, just recorded a perfect score on the SAT. And recent grad Emilee McCurdy is headed into the aerospace engineering program at the University of Alabama.
In athletics, Harding was the only private school in Tennessee last year to finish in the Final Four in boys’ baseball, basketball and football.
Gillespie pointed out that about 30 percent of Harding’s students come from Churches of Christ while the rest are a mix of various denominations, including a few non-Christian religions.