HISTORY OF BRIARCREST CHRISTIAN SCHOOL (1973-PRESENT)
From the beginning
It all started 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 approximately 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.
Eighteen months later, on January 3, 1973, the East Park Education Survey Committee recommended the establishment of a church-sponsored private school. The property that was purchased was previously named Briarpatch Estate by its owners. Mrs. Maxine Ford, a member of the church, suggested Briarcrest as the school's name by using the word “briar” from the original name of the property 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.”
Growing the school
The East Park Education Committee was instructed to find satellite school locations, an administrator for the system, and principals for the grade (1st-8th grade) 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 Baptist 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 and 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 when 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 its pledge campaign, “With God Nothing Is Impossible.”
Briarcrest Christian School opens its doors
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 first year, there were more than 2000 students enrolled.
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 and High School Principal. He began interviewing and hiring 70 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 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.
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.
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. In 1979, several 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.
BCS goes to Washington
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 based on non-discrimination and had worked hard to recruit minority students and employees, 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. Briarcrest took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Briarcrest. 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 financial and accounting discrepancies between the church and 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 specific, local congregation.
Troubled times makes us stronger
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 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 17 members from various churches. During Mr. Clayton’s tenure, Briarcrest was able to pay down a considerable portion of the debt.
Clayton retires, new BCS President at helm
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-grade 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. A multi-purpose room, cafeteria were completed in the fall of 2004.
Merrill named President; Simpson appointed Headmaster
In June 2004, Bill McGee became our third system president and served until 2007. Mark Merrill served as interim president for two years before being named as president in July 2009. Plans for moving the elementary and middle schools to the Houston Levee campus began. The school system administrative structure was once again 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 in 2009. 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. By August of 2009, the Houston Levee campus housed PK2-12th grade. The East Memphis location added a two-year-old program to their 3K-5th grade classes.
Briarcrest sells East Memphis campus; begins construction on new elementary school expansion and Sparks Chapel
In the fall of 2012, Briarcrest Christian School sold the 6000 Briarcrest Avenue campus to Highpoint Church. As a condition of the sale, Briarcrest leased the facilities for continuation of our East Memphis preschool and elementary school. Simultaneously, Briarcrest announced plans to begin construction of a new $7 million, 35,000 square-feet, state-of-the-art performing arts center, the Dr. Willard R. Sparks Chapel and Performing Arts Center at the Houston Levee Campus. The facility opened in January 2014.
The Sparks Chapel houses the Briarcrest administrative and business offices, auditorium and chapel, and informal art gallery. Sparks Chapel also has spaces designed for vocal music and theatre, with two instruction classrooms, four conservatory rooms, two dressing rooms and a scene workshop.
By this time, the Sportsplex expanded to include 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 campus. The Sportsplex also included an indoor baseball practice facility, three concessions buildings, a band field, and three multi-purpose fields. In 2014, Briarcrest made several renovations and additions to these existing athletic facilities. The Wilson Field House was renovated which now includes a new athletic media/film room. The press box underwent 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. This property has been transformed into the Hackmeyer-Sparks Elementary Practice Fields and opened in 2023.
New elementary school wing opens
In 2020, Briarcrest continued to grow with the expansion of our campus by completing the final phase of the original master plan with the expansion of the elementary campus.
The A. Duncan and Carolyn S. Williams Wing of the elementary school enhances Briarcrest’s ability to serve families at the beginning of their educational journey. The elementary expansion includes new classrooms, a beautiful, state-of-the-art STEM lab, an additional age-appropriate playground, an Art room, a gymnasium/multi-purpose room, and additional parking.
BCS builds state-of-the-art athletic facilities
In the spring of 2021, BCS leadership initiated an athletic master planning process to identify current and future areas of program growth with a focus on the health, wellness and development of our student athletes. In fulfillment of our vision to develop athletic fields for our younger teams, Briarcrest began construction in 2022 on multi-purpose elementary school practice fields, complete with lighting, artificial turf, and bleachers. Named in memory of Bill “Hackdaddy” Hackmeyer, Jr., the Hackmeyer-Sparks Elementary Practice Fields were officially opened in May 2023 for practice and competition. Briarcrest also installed lights on the middle school field to enhance practice schedules for our 5th – 8th grade student athletes.
Groundbreaking for the Petree Athletic Center, to be known as the PAC, was celebrated in February 2023. Exciting features of the PAC will include: a state-of-the art training room based on Campbell Clinic best practices and input on design; a film room with graduated seating to accommodate team, student, and parent meetings; a much-needed girls’ locker room accommodating more than 90 young women as they prepare for games and practices; a new boys’ locker room with nearly 60 lockers for teams and individuals preparing for Strength and Conditioning classes in the new weight room; and a new 6,000 square-foot weight room for student athlete development before and after practices, as well as Strength and Conditioning classes during the school day.
Design development on a covered practice field is well underway and construction will begin as soon as we successfully reach our campaign goal. The 70-yard artificial turf field will be used by football, lacrosse, soccer, cheer, and many more outdoor sports teams during inclement weather that would otherwise cancel their practices.
From humble beginnings to a spectacular campus, God has truly blessed Briarcrest Christian School over many decades. Since 1973, the overall experience at BCS has been defined by the unique partnership of our students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and friends whose strong commitment is evident in carrying out our mission and vision of academic excellence in the Memphis area.
As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we are grateful for the community and people who have shaped this school. We look forward to all that God has in store for Briarcrest as we enter our next fifty years!
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”