The face of eighth grader Alexa Moore radiates enthusiasm as she talks about Power Center Academy Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee.
“What I like most about school is the relationships that I have, not only with my peers, but with my teachers and the administration,” she said. “It really helps to come to school and know that you have great relationships. You are able to enjoy school and not just go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to come.’ You really want to.”
Such was not always the case for students in the Hickory Hill community. Although the area once shone like a beacon, locals said it had dimmed over the years. Now, however, the school and other community resources gleam with renewed potential.
“Here at Hickory Hill we want to make sure that we are preparing individuals to create businesses. We want them to pour back into the community,” said Cullen Johnson, dean of instruction. He stands framed by the beautiful charter school in the background. “We want to see this community become even better than it already is. And, “we know that the potential for good ideas, they are inside that building.”
Johnson’s hand sweeps toward the school where, just inside, students dressed in school uniforms topped by navy jackets listen intently to teachers circulating among pristine, quiet classrooms.
Simply put, Power Center Academy is a game changer. Beginning with space for middle-school students, 70 percent of who are considered economically disadvantaged, it because the highest performing middle school in Tennessee only three years after opening.
“I watched the Hickory Hill community growing up as a child. It was thriving at one point in time,” said Fred Hardeman, a business banker at Regions Bank. “And over the years, it started deteriorating. People moved farther east and it came to be a real bad part of town. And when Dr. Spence opened the church here, they started doing different things in the community.”
New Direction Christian Church, pastored by Dr. Stacy Spencer, is a key player in the community’s revitalization. “We knew we had to do something as a church here in the center of Hickory Hill, as a community development,” explained Cassandra Harris, director of the church’s Power Center Community Development Corporation (CDC).
Dr. Spencer furthered Harris’ thought: ““Why not put all those pieces together and let’s come up with a sustainable, livable, workable community? And thus Eden Square was born.”
In addition to the charter school, plans for Eden Square include affordable housing, a performance arts center, a wellness center, and a senior citizen independent living facility. “And so, out of the hopelessness of a destabilized community was born a sustainable community that can be replicated in other distressed communities all across the country,” Spencer said.
Eden Square’s growth will come from a $40 million collaborative partnership. Regions participation included a $4 million construction loan. In 2010, the City of Memphis purchased the former Marin Cove apartment complex and turned it over to the local CDC.
What’s taking place is a neighborhood transformed due to the community effort, according to Hillis Schild, the regional Community Affairs Manager for Regions. “It’s about education reform here in Memphis, it’s affordable housing for families that need housing, it’s employment opportunities,” Schild said. “It’s just provided a world of opportunities for this area.”
Harris acknowledges that no one force alone could have done as much good. “It’s very important that we have people like Regions Bank and New Direction Christian Church and Habitat (for Humanity) and the CDC to come together because we know one organization or one entity cannot do it alone,” she says.
Regions’ Hardeman has watched Hickory Hill’s zig=zag trajectory from start to stumble to restart. “When Regions affords the opportunity for all these different organizations to come in and play a huge role in revitalizing these communities, investing dollars, investing talent in those communities, kids get to see a different side,” Hardeman said. “It makes me proud to work for Regions.”
Students like Alexa aren’t the only ones taking note. “Having a school like Power Center here says a lot about the sponsors and everyone that’s backing Power Center, that we want to take care of the Hickory Hill area,” said Paula Gross, a local parent. “Having a school like Power Center here makes the community feel like we haven’t been forgotten about.”