Gestalt expands charter schools efforts in Hickory Hill

On September 17, Gestalt Community Schools held a ribbon-cutting for the new Power Center Academy Elementary School and 9th Grade Academy at the Mendenhall Square Shopping Center. Technically, the schools opened last month, but it was important to celebrate the openings as a major milestone for Gestalt and Hickory Hill.

Over 100 people attended the event.

“We wanted to have a milestone event and it was nice to see the community support,” said Yetta Lewis, president and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools.

The new schools mark the first time Gestalt has served all K-12 grades in Hickory Hill.

“This is our first year with 5th grade. We've added a grade each year,” said Lewis. “This is [also the students'] first time getting a real school building. One of the kids said yesterday that it's like having a new home.”

The schools are the first major developments in Gestalt's larger, multi-partner Mendenhall Square Shopping Center revitalization plan.

Gestalt Community Schools, which receives support from Pinnacle Bank, Hope Credit Union, Nonprofit Finance Fund, BlueHub Capital and other partners, purchased the property in June 2018 for $2.4 million.

Power Center Academy Hickory Hill High School was already located in the building at the time of purchase, and the middle school is just across Winchester Road in the Eden Square Town Center redevelopment, which is another multi-partner redevelopment project led by Power Center CDC.

After purchase, renovations on Mendenhall Square quickly began to reconfigure the high school, add the 9th Grade Academy and move Gestalt's existing elementary school to the property.

With renovations complete and the schools up and running, Gestalt's plan now is to work with community partners to add supporting elements to the property such as a preschool, restaurants and a grocery store where parents can easily access fresh produce while picking up or dropping the kids off for school. 

“They are very much faith-based, and they believe in the whole-family approach. It's not just the kids that they're educating. They want to make sure that the entire family is supported for the healthy growth of the child and the family,” said Candace Taylor, interim executive director of Power Center CDC.

The CDC was a partner in the formation of the first Hickory Hill Power Center Academy school in 2008, but Gestalt grew into its own nonprofit charter school management network in 2011 and has founded and operated all of the Power Center schools since, including two additional schools in southeast Memphis.

Ceremony and Celebration

Attendees agreed that the ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 17 was fun and well-organized. 

“It was really cute,” said Taylor. “The children shook all the hands of the people who were there. Then there was the ribbon cutting, and the drum line led us from the high school over to the elementary school."

From there, elementary school ambassadors took guests on a tour of their new school. 

“[State] Senator Katrina Robinson gave remarks before we did the official ribbon cutting,” said Lewis. "Her children were some of our founding scholars at the middle school, and she talked about how their experience changed her as a parent ... It was nice to hear that from her perspective.”

The new 9th Grade Academy sits adjacent to the 10th through 12th grade high school. The academy is serving roughly 200 freshman in its first year. 

"They're in a brand new, state-of-the-art building really focusing on building the bridge between middle school and high school,” said Lewis, who added that the academy will also help ensure they complete high school and are truly college ready.

Power Center High currently has a 100 percent graduation rate and college acceptance rate, but after doing extensive research, Lewis said the 9th grade is an especially critical time. 

“If they do well in 9th Grade, they will continue their journey successfully to get a high school diploma and beyond," said Lewis. "But if they have a rocky 9th grade year, most likely they will drop out before their junior year.”

Tijuana Kimble has three kids attending Gestalt schools in Hickory Hill and a son who graduated recently. 

“I think [the schools are] an awesome thing. I love how the partnership works. We communicate very well, the school and I” said Kimble, owner and operator of Heart's Desire Catering.

"[Power Center Academy takes] a really good approach to make sure that everyone is taken care of," said Taylor.

Why Hickory Hill?

The story of the Gestalt's newest schools began 11 years ago with the formation of the Power Center Academy Hickory Hill Middle School.

“In 2008, the country was going through a recession. Home foreclosure rates were high, so we started a school to address some of the issues in the community," said Lewis. "Our school focused on entrepreneurship and financial literacy.”

In 2011, Lewis and Derwin Sisnett founded the Gestalt Community Schools. Lewis said that at the time, businesses and people were moving out of the neighborhood and farther east to Cordova and Collierville. 

"It really changed the face of the community," she said. "We wanted to develop schools that were going to address that need, like how can we build more entrepreneurs and how could we focus on financial literacy early so that we could litigate some of the generational poverty that we see.”

Taylor noted that the Power Center schools will soon be partnering with Operation Hope to offer credit counseling services for its families. 

“[There are] great things happening in Hickory Hill, and we want people to reinvest in Hickory Hill," said Lewis. "Stay in Hickory Hill, educate your kids, live and work in Hickory Hill. There's opportunities here.”

Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit (Photo by April Stilwell)
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