Frayser school gives 'New Hope,' outdoor education

New Hope Christian Academy provides strong education in the classroom as well as outdoors, where children get to experience a garden learning environment in the heart of Frayser.
Taking a tour through New Hope Christian Academy feels more like walking through a garden center than a school. Almost every outdoor space is lush with herbs, shade plants, vegetables and flowers. The students also have an indoor “aquaponic system” where they are learning how to grow hydroponically.
 
The truly incredible part of the school however, is the farm-to-table urban farm that is right across the street. Full of vegetables, herbs and fruits, the urban farm was designed to get the kids out of the classroom and into nature. According to Cecilia Bell, Director of Admission and Enrollment at New Hope, everyone has something to do in the farm, from the 3-year-olds to the sixth graders.
 
“We call it creation care,” said Bell. “We are teaching them to respect and love the world around them by farming and recycling. They get to see it, touch it, and work with it.”
 
The urban farm was started three years ago and has since become one of the students’ favorite places. The farm is full to the brim of cabbages, watermelons, garlic, blackberries and so much more. Bell said they take the “farm-to-table” concept seriously; all of the produce is used to nourish the students or families in the neighborhood.
 
Every week the school runs a pay what you can vegetable stand so that parents and other Frayser residents are getting fresh, organic produce. The same ideals apply to the school cafeteria. Meals are made fresh every day for students at New Hope.
 
“Yesterday we had salad for lunch and mixed in our own kale, Swiss chard and cucumbers,” said Bell.
 
Next to the urban farm, occupying seven acres of land, is the New Hope Christian Academy urban forest. Over this past year school staff, parents and alumni have volunteered their time to clear what was once an overgrown vacant lot. Now it is a natural haven for the students and teachers at New Hope that includes nature walk areas, an outdoor classroom, treehouse and a suspension bridge.
 
“We want to remain sensory,” said Bell. “All learning does not take place in the classroom at this school, and we want to keep in mind where our students live. When you are in the middle of those woods it doesn't feel like Frayser anymore. Some of these kids have never had an opportunity to be in wilderness areas before coming here and some of the situations they live through you couldn't even imagine. The urban forest is a peaceful place for them to play and learn and have fellowship.”
 
The school has more to offer than nature space; it also has a “makers space” where students can focus on project-based learning. Currently they are working on making prosthetic hands with a 3-D printer, which will then be sent to children in need. The science lab includes catfish in the aquaponics tank, surrounded by iguanas, bearded dragons, a tarantula and various other animals that the students can care for.
 
“There's a big difference between taking a test based on something you saw in a book and something you can see or handle,” said Bell. “We're serious about science and sensory learning. It's amazing when you see the kids, especially the girls, being engaged in science.”
 
The elementary school pushes academic success in their students as 100 percent of the students who graduate from New Hope finish high school. The school offers an alumni scholarship office to assist the students with college.
 
Development Coordinator Erika Cain was a parent at New Hope before she decided to work there. She said she loves seeing what the school does for Frayser and how the community reacts to their initiatives.
 
“We think improved education will eventually trickle down to become positive changes. We want to reflect Memphis. People shouldn't focus on what it is now, they need to look forward to what it can be,” said Cain. “Even at a young age, nurturing God’s ground teaches our students to respect the community and themselves.”
 
Lila Wilkinson was a co-founder of the school in 1996, and wanted to do something in the city of Memphis to help the community. The school moved from Downtown Memphis to Frayser in 2000 and she said she sees a huge difference in family involvement since the relocation.
 
“Parents love what's happening here,” said Wilkinson. “There's really no place like New Hope. Our alumni come back and are such polished young adults. I have had educators in Nashville tell me that they have never seen such respectful students before.”
 
From the original class of 27 students, New Hope Christian Academy now has 424 students enrolled and continues to grow. The students, teachers, parents and alumni are all passionate about what the school does and what it offers to students in a neighborhood that usually has serious issues with education and graduation rates. For more information on New Hope, visit www.newhopememphis.org.

Read more articles by Lauren Turner.

Lauren Turner is a native Memphian and journalism graduate student at the University of Memphis. She is passionate about her city and the people who inhabit it. 
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