Lori Phillips, the principal of the first new school of the new Shelby County Schools, could have had the ribbon-cutting for Belle Forest Community School on the first day of the school year in August.
But she decided to wait because “an empty beautiful building does not make a school,” she said.
The student choir at Belle Forest Community School in Southeast Memphis sings at last week’s formal opening. The school serves kindergarten through fifth-grade students.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
So Friday, Sept. 27, a small group of school officials, parents and students gathered at the front entrance to the elementary school to do the honors.
They included a student choir, some nervous first solos, a new green bowtie for the student reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and lots of pictures by parents.
Chuck Muscato, the pastor of Ridgeway Assembly of God, just across Ridgeway Road from the school, sprinkled some mustard seeds by the front of the school in a symbolic gesture to the new start in a new school for parents in southeast Memphis.
“Only God can know what will happen here,” he said, after talking of watching the school’s construction on a heavily wooded lot the church owned at one time.
“These little, tender seeds,” he said, talking of the schoolchildren, “are going to be the new trees in Belle Forest.”
Regional superintendent Michael Lowe continued the analogy, as he talked of the school as “a new way of thinking and learning in our Hickory Hill area.”
“This school started out not as a mound of dirt, but as a concept,” he said, “a concept of community – a concept of relationships and last, but not least, a concept of family.”
The naming of the school was an early stumble for the countywide school board. The then-23-member school board spent an hour in July 2012 debating whether it should be Belle Grove or Belle Forest and then whether it should be elementary school or community school.
A similarly lengthy school board debate at about the same time about what to call the school system and whether its name should include Memphis came to symbolize the struggles the bigger board had as it continued to put off selecting a new superintendent.
Belle Forest reflects a shift in school-age population into southeast Shelby County and northeast Shelby County. It’s not an increase in the total school-age population, but a shift out of northwest and southwest Memphis.
The school is built to hold 1,200 kindergarteners through fifth-grade students and relieves overcrowding at Oak Forest, Germanshire, Newberry, Winridge and Hickory Ridge elementary schools.
And the word “community” makes it part of a national association of community schools with the goal of making the school a learning center for adults as well as children, with other community activities taking place within the school.
“Our parents in the Hickory Hill community want a school where they can have partnerships,” Lowe said. “They wants schools where there children can grow emotionally and physically and socially.”