VOL. 131 | NO. 188 | Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Eden Square Debuts School, Arts Center
By Bill Dries
Derwin Sisnett remembered a Christmas from his childhood this weekend. He wanted a Nintendo gaming system and remembers he and his brother searching their home while their parents where elsewhere.
The new Power Center Academy Middle School in Hickory Hill had its formal opening Saturday, Sept. 17, but the Gestalt charter school has been open since the school year began in early August.
On Christmas Day they discovered their parents had hidden the most cherished present in plain sight.
For the senior adviser of Gestalt Community Schools, that is what the site of the abandoned Marin Cove apartment complex in Hickory Hill was – “a gem that was hidden in plain sight.”
Eight years after he and New Direction Christian Church pastor Stacy Spencer began to plan part of a set of K-12 charter schools, a performing arts center and single-family housing at Marina Cove, the Power Center Academy Middle School and the Performing Arts Center at Eden Square had their formal opening.
“Most people passed it by. It was too complicated to retrofit. It was too confusing,” Sisnett said Saturday, Sept. 17, to a group of 250 in the performing arts center. “Why don’t we build a school someplace else? Why don’t we just go into a newer community where everything is brand new?”
Sisnett and Spencer persevered through those questions as well as the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The middle school at 5449 Winchester Road opened last month. With student artwork adorning the hallways and classrooms, students guided adults to various areas of the school on Saturday.
“For those of you who still believe in Hickory Hill … stay here, invest here,” Sisnett said. “For those of you who believe there is something better elsewhere, I would argue that great things start at home. Build your farm before you build your farmhouse. For us, this is our farm. This is what we are doing for our community to give back.”
In an area that 25 to 30 years ago was a magnet for every type of big-box retail store, Hickory Hill is now a hotbed for various types of schools – conventional and charter.
Shelby County Schools officials have questioned whether the larger area is saturated.
“We never looked at competition,” Sisnett said. “We looked at serving the whole community. For us it’s a no-brainer to think not just about school, but everything that surrounds schools, the wrap-around services and the wrap-around infrastructure.”
The Power Center Academy charter schools by Gestalt are a cornerstone of the transformation. The middle school, grades 6 to 8, opened in 2008 on the New Direction campus further east on Winchester. The elementary school debuted in the 2015-2016 school year with kindergarten and the first grade. The second grade was added this school year.
Power Center Academy High School, grades 9-12, is in the Mendenhall Square shopping center across Winchester from Eden Square in the space that had been Southwest Tennessee Community College’s Hickory Hill campus.
The high school has 700 students and a waiting list.
Habitat for Humanity begins construction soon on the first nine homes that are the residential component of Eden Square and that, too, will be connected to Power Center Academy.
“We’re going to put some sweat equity in to build this for our families,” said Yetta Lewis, Gestalt CEO. “The families that are going to be in the homes are families of students that are in our schools. It comes full circle for us.”
A health and wellness center is also a future part of planned development at Eden Square.
Lewis said Eden Square began to build momentum before the forms of the first buildings started to take shape.
“The momentum started actually with the leveling of the old blighted apartment complexes,” she said, pointing to then-Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s decision to put up city funding for the 2010 demolition of the apartments. The site of the complex is roughly half of the 43-acre Eden Square site.
“As soon as this became a clear flat land – clear of eyesores, something changed in the community,” Lewis said. “There was a lot of crime around these abandoned buildings. When we leveled them, there was nowhere to hide.”
Sisnett said having the school as an anchor for Eden Square is a more stable base for building the surrounding area back up.
“Not only are you driving traffic to a community again, you are bringing up retail,” he said. “You are bringing up housing. You are bringing up all of the amenities that typically should go into a community. When you anchor with a school and when you think about Hickory Hill, you can’t talk about crime anymore.”
State Rep. Karen Camper of Memphis called the development “a beacon of hope.”
Spencer met Sisnett when Sisnett applied to be principal of the middle school. But he talked him out of that job and into pursuing the Eden Square plan Sisnett had already outlined.
“I think this is a game-changer not only for Hickory Hill, but for the city of Memphis,” Spencer said.
Spencer said the Power Center Community Development Corp. hopes to add 20 more single-family homes to the nine already planned.