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    Donation to aid Gestalt charter schools in expanding, setting example

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill took shape four years ago in the Sunday school building at New Direction Christian Church.

    Space is so coveted now that three times a week maintenance staff move every desk out of the eighth-grade wing to make room for cribs for church functions, part of the heavy-lift of being a fast-growing charter school in Memphis.

    Today, school leaders are getting another lift -- a $3.5 million cash infusion, the largest single investment in a Memphis charter -- to help it build a network of schools like Power Center.

    "It's more than just a blank check," said Derwin Sisnett, a 30-year-old Emory graduate from Queens who is chief executive officer of Gestalt Community Schools, the umbrella group for Power Center and the eight schools it intends to open by 2015.

    "It's the expertise in human capital. It's a lot of due diligence, working internally to establish a strong model that could be replicated."

    The money is from Charter School Growth Fund-Tennessee, a $30 million pot of cash comprised of $20 million from philanthropists and $10 in federal Race to the Top funding.

    The plan is to pour half into homegrown charters like Gestalt and invest the remaining $15 million in duplicating already strong charters.

    The germ of the idea comes from Charter School Growth Fund, a Denver-based group of investors who call themselves venture philanthropists.

    "We do our work nationally," said Darryl Cobb, CSGF partner and vice president. "We are agnostic about location. We are looking for strong charters all across the country."

    The group -- formed in 2005 by Donald Fisher, co-founder of The Gap, and John Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton -- has funneled $100 million to 30 charter groups.

    While it has not funded Tennessee charters, it's on the ground here as members of the team evaluating who gets funding.

    "We're looking for people who can say this is what led to our success, and this is how we can scale it," Cobb said.

    In psychology, "gestalt" is the theory that says the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    As a psychology major, Sisnett saw the application at Power Center, a school that opened in the midst of the economic downturn.

    School leaders figured the best way to make a long-lasting contribution was turn out students prepared to be entrepreneurs. With an assist from SunTrust, the school has a small student-run bank on campus.

    A handful of students came to school with savings accounts. Now, most have them. During the Haiti earthquake, they gave $1,500 from their savings to relief efforts.

    "It's leaving the city better than you found it," Sisnett said. "It's going home and doing something about what they have learned."

    Gestalt serves 435 students in two schools on the New Direction campus. When the network is fully built out, it expects to have 5,300 students, 5 percent of of current city schools population.

    The ultimate goal is to increase the number of students going to college in Memphis City Schools by 25 percent.

    Gestalt is entirely homegrown.

    Started in 2008, Gestalt is part of the Power Center Community Development Corp., founded by New Direction Christian Church.

    "We went from zero to 435 students in four years with zero dollars," says Sisnett.

    "The church was supportive giving us this space. When we first started, we had a small seed grant from the Hyde Foundation. That helped us build out our plan."

    Last fall, former U.S. senator Bill Frist's State Collaborative on Reforming Education named Power Center Academy the strongest performing middle school in the state.

    More accolades came this winter when the state included Gestalt on the list of charters it was partnering with to take over city schools.

    It's in the process of moving into Gordon Elementary in North Memphis where, starting this summer, it will offer a science and arts program in a city school in plain sight of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

    By 2013, Gestalt will also be the anchor of a 43-acre town center at Mendenhall and Winchester, where with a FEMA grant, it will build a tornado shelter/performing arts center for student and community use where the blighted Marina Cove apartments were.

    In the mix, will be a new Gestalt high school and middle school.

    "We need the space. Our middle school has 300 students now. The new one is projected for a little over 400," Sisnett says.

    "We already have a waiting list. I don't think it's going to go away, but at least we will be able to serve more scholars."

    -- Jane Roberts: (901) 529-2512