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History of Briarcrest Christian School (1973-Present)

On September 8, 1971, a committee was appointed by East Park Baptist Church to study the possibility of establishing a church-sponsored private school. The purpose was to form a school that would provide academic excellence within a Christian environment for students of all races. East Park was a small Baptist church with 200+ members located at Park Avenue and White Station Road in Memphis, TN. The pastor was Rev. Wayne Allen, and it was his vision that led to the founding of Briarcrest Christian School. After much discussion and searching, suitable land was located on Sweetbriar Road in east Memphis. A special church business session was called to consider the purchase of 14.2 acres of land as the site of the new school and relocation of East Park Baptist Church. After much prayer, the church voted to make a bid of $426,500 for the property. The sealed bids later revealed that East Park Baptist Church had outbid all other competitors by only $400.

On January 3, 1973, the Education Survey Committee recommended the establishment of a private, church-sponsored school. The property that was purchased was previously named Briarpatch Estate by its owners. Mrs. Maxine Ford, a member of the church, suggested the school name as Briarcrest by using the word “briar” from the original name and “crest” because the founders fully expected to have the top school in the area. The school colors were selected by Pastor Allen because his alma mater, Central High School, had the colors green and gold. The mascot, a St. Bernard dog, was adopted; and the student body was known as the Briarcrest “Saints.”
The Committee was instructed to find: satellite school locations, an administrator for the system and principals for the grade (1-8) schools. A School System Establishment Committee was formed with Pat Allen as the chairperson. Miss Allen was a Memphis City School system teacher and sister of Pastor Allen. Members of East Park Church elected the Trustees for the school system on January 13, 1973. There were 16 members on the board, and all board members were required to be members of the founding church.

On February 7, 1973, the church wrote into the by-laws that the pastor would serve as board chairman on a permanent basis. At this meeting, the church authorized the trustees to borrow approximately $4,000,000 for the building of the school/church. Gene Strong was selected as the architect, and a bid was awarded to contractor V. A. Lucchesi for $3,930,000. The eventual cost of the completed church/school building was $6,000,000.

The church met opposition to the new construction, and a lawsuit was filed by a local resident on July 4, 1973, to halt construction of the building at 842 Sweetbriar Road. The lawsuit went all the way to the Tennessee State Supreme Court, and the court ruled in favor of Briarcrest. In September, 1973, work began; and funds were raised through a pledge campaign entitled, “With God Nothing Is Impossible.” This scripture from Matthew 19:26 remains on the front of the original building.
In the fall of 1973, Briarcrest Baptist School System opened with 12 schools, all 1st-8th grade schools. Space was leased from participating churches in the east Memphis area. The schools were located in Audubon Park Baptist, Bartlett Baptist, Beverly Hills Baptist, Broadmoor Baptist, Cherokee Baptist, Colonial Baptist, Cottonwood Baptist, Crestview Baptist, East Park Baptist, Leawood Baptist, Ridgeway Baptist, and Trafalgar Baptist churches.

There were “circuit-riding” principals with each principal supervising two or three schools. Some principals had as many as 750 students on campuses as far as 12 miles apart. The first year, there were more than 2000 students enrolled. For the initial year, a clergyman, Dr. Marvin Kilman served as the system administrator.

A search began for a high school principal, and the Board approached the principal of Overton High School, Joseph Clayton. He was a 20-year employee in the Shelby County and Memphis City School systems. After much prayer, he agreed to accept the position of Director of Secondary Education/HS Principal. He began interviewing and hiring 70 select teachers in March 1974, and on September 23, 1974 (after a 3-week delay), the new facility was opened as Briarcrest Baptist High School and East Park Elementary School. The high school opened with 963 students in grades 9-12. Reporters from all major national TV networks were on hand with various journalists from across the country. Briarcrest was the largest non-parochial Christian school system in the United States. In the second year (1975), the enrollment in grades 1-12 was 3,900. There was, as yet, no kindergarten program.

The first graduating class graduated from Briarcrest in 1975, as a state-approved school. The second graduating class graduated from Briarcrest as a fully-accredited high school recognized by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Briarcrest has maintained its SACS accreditation from that point to present and has added affiliation with the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the Association of Christian Schools International. The high school also owned and operated 8 buses from 1974-85. The bus routes served Memphis and Shelby County.

Pat Allen was the Director of Elementary Education/Business Administrator. In the late 1970’s, Mrs. Sally Miller was hired as the Director of Elementary Education, and Pat Allen became the Executive Director of the school system. During Miss Allen’s tenure, another private school, Towering Oaks Baptist School, found itself in financial difficulty. Briarcrest purchased their property in December, 1978. The next fall, Towering Oaks became a part of Briarcrest and housed an elementary school, and their football stadium became Briarcrest’s first home field. This property was located on Winchester Road between Perkins and Mendenhall roads. In 1979, a number of the 12 original Briarcrest satellite grade schools merged and relocated to the Towering Oaks site with others remaining in mostly northern and eastern Shelby County. At this time, the elementary schools sought accreditation by hiring full-time elementary principals and librarians for each campus. By 1986, all 1-8 grade schools were fully accredited (The high school had been accredited since the fall semester of 1975.). This was an academic highlight, and a rare occurrence for that time period.

In 1978, the IRS decreed that all private schools that were created after 1970 or had increased in enrollment since 1970, must have a significant percentage of minority students enrolled in their schools or that these schools would lose tax-exempt status. The resolution was designed to penalize the so-called “white flight” schools. Even though Briarcrest was founded on the basis of non-discrimination, the IRS specifically mentioned Briarcrest Baptist School as an example of schools that would be affected. Briarcrest requested that other area private schools join them in fighting this resolution and defending their own non-discrimination policies, but no other schools joined the effort. Pastor Wayne Allen and Briarcrest’s attorney took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Briarcrest, and the IRS resolution was struck down, ultimately benefiting all private schools.

Shortly after all the schools had been accredited, the Board of Trustees voted to purchase additional property on Dexter Road at Germantown Road for the purpose of building an elementary school and athletic complex. Due to financial difficulties, no work was started on this property. In 1988, because of internal problems in the church and financial issues in the school, it was discovered that the school was $2,000,000 in debt. It became evident that the school had to separate from the church. The best arrangement for both parties was that the school would give the church the Dexter Road property and $200,000 for their 50% share of the property at 842 Sweetbriar (now known as 6000 Briarcrest Avenue.) The church relocated and changed its name to Briarwood Baptist Church. The school changed its name to Briarcrest Christian School and was no longer affiliated with any church.

In December, 1988, it was determined that the school would not be able to reopen in January without securing a loan to cover the $2,000,000 debt. There was no lending institution that was willing to loan the money to the school due to declining enrollment and the great financial need. A long-time friend of Joe Clayton was contacted and agreed to meet with the Board of Trustees. Paul Piper (founder and CEO of Christ Is Our Salvation), proposed to lend the school $1,000,000 if, and only if, the school could raise an additional $1,000,000. His loan was secured by requiring each Board member to sign a $10,000 promissory note and obtain other promissory notes from friends of Briarcrest to total $1,000,000. All employees voluntarily took a 10% reduction in salary. Unbelievably, in just 9 days during the Christmas holidays, the school raised $1,000,000 in cash from former students and parents, current parents, and friends of Briarcrest in the community. The school reorganized by declaring 52 employees surplus and took other extreme cost-cutting measures. On December 27, 1988, as the direct result of much sacrifice on the part of everyone associated with Briarcrest, it was announced that Briarcrest Christian School would re-open for second semester. In January, 1989, Joseph Clayton was named as the first president of the Briarcrest Christian School system. A new Board of Trustees was established and was made up of parents of former or current Briarcrest students. The new structure of the school became K-6 for the elementary schools (Briarcrest-East and Ridgeway) and 7-12 for the high school.

From 1988-1996, Joe Clayton served as the president of BCS with a board made up of seventeen members from various churches. During this time period, Briarcrest was able to pay down a considerable portion of the debt. In 1995, the Joseph A. Clayton Award for Academic Excellence program was established by President Clayton and his wife, Nell, for the purpose of recognizing academic achievement for students in grades 6-12

Upon Clayton’s retirement, Tim Hillen was hired as president and served from July, 1996, until February, 2004. During his tenure, the school system’s educational structure was again re-organized and Briarcrest Christian Middle School was established with grades 6-8. Elementary schools became K3-Gr. 5, and the high school housed grades 9-12.

Because of eastward school system growth and the need for a new athletic facility, the Towering Oaks property was sold and 85+ acres were purchased on Houston Levee Road. A magnificent Sportsplex was completed, and dedication of Clayton Field took place in the fall of 2000. A new high school building and gym (Rowell Arena) were opened in August, 2003. The multi-purpose room/cafeteria was completed in the fall of 2004.

In June, 2004, Bill McGee became our new president and served until 2007. Mark Merrill served as Interim President for 2 years before being named as president in July, 2009. The plans for moving the elementary and middle schools to the Houston Levee campus began. The administrative structure was also reorganized to create the position of headmaster. Stephen Simpson, the high school principal, was appointed as the system’s first Headmaster in July, 2009.

The Houston Levee campus saw tremendous growth with the opening of a new elementary and middle school facility. The Middle School located at 6000 Briarcrest Avenue and the current Elementary School at Leawood East Baptist Church were both relocated to the new Houston Levee site in August, 2009. The Houston Levee campus houses PK2-12 grade. The East Memphis location added a 2-year old program to their 3K-5th grade classes.

In the fall of 2012, Briarcrest Christian School sold the 6000 Briarcrest Avenue campus to Highpoint Church. As a condition of the sale, Briarcrest will leaseback facilities for our East Memphis preschool and elementary school. Simultaneously, Briarcrest announced plans to begin construction of the new $7 million, 35,000 square-feet, state-of-the-art Dr. Willard R. Sparks Chapel and Performing Arts Center at the Houston Levee Campus. The facility opened in January 2014.

The 35,000-square-foot Sparks Chapel houses the administrative/business offices, auditorium/chapel and informal art gallery. Sparks Chapel has spaces designed for vocal music and theatre with two instruction classrooms, four conservatory rooms, two dressing rooms and a scene workshop.
Briarcrest has an extensive outdoor sports complex. The Sportsplex includes a football stadium and track, soccer field, baseball stadium, softball stadium, a six-court tennis complex and a new lighted multi-purpose field for football, lacrosse and soccer on the west side of our complex. The Sportsplex also includes an indoor baseball practice facility, three concessions buildings, band field and three multi-purpose fields complement the Saints Sportsplex. The most impactful renovation was to our high school weight training facilities. The new strength and conditioning program continues to develop our student athletes into stronger, more conditioned athletes. We are constantly developing new and innovative ways to make our athletic program one of the most comprehensive and outstanding athletic programs in the Mid-South.

In 2014, Briarcrest made several renovations and additions to some of their athletic facilities. The Wilson Field House was renovated which now includes a new athletic media/film room. The press box underwent massive renovation adding two additional areas that house media and opposing team coaches. ln the fall of 2015, Briarcrest acquired 7.66 acres located on the east side of Houston Levee just south of the elementary school. Over the next few years, we hope to develop this property into athletic fields for younger teams allowing our current practice fields to be fully utilized by older students.

God has truly blessed Briarcrest Christian School over many decades. Our prayer is that he continues to do so as long as we continue to seek to follow His will.